Although I’d wager that most people by now have at least heard the term “probiotics,” I’m still not certain that it’s commonly understood what, exactly, probiotics are. For those of you who are brave enough to raise your hand and admit that you don’t, here’s a short introduction to the relationship between these good gut bacteria and our health, as well as my take on why it’s important to take a probiotic supplement every day.
What Are Probiotics, Anyway?
Probiotics are broadly defined as strains of bacteria that support the health of the host in some way. Broken down, the word literally means “for, or in support of” (“pro”) and “pertaining to a living organism” (“biotic”). Probiotics are most often associated with digestive health; however, good bacteria actually live everywhere on the human body.
Though it’s a bit unpleasant to think about, your body is literally covered in bacteria—for every one human cell in the body, there are 10 microbes. Along with millions of other bacteria, probiotics make up what is often referred to as the “microbiome.”
See a list of all articles about Gut Bacteria in the Gut Bacteria and Probiotics Index
Instinctively, you may react to that bit of trivia by feeling like you need to wash your hands or take a shower. But the relationship between humans and bacteria is symbiotic and has evolved over thousands of years. They need us in order to survive, and we need them in order to support certain essential metabolic functions.
For example, bacteria in the gut help support the body’s ability to metabolize excess bile acids and hormones, keeping cholesterol and estrogen levels in a healthy range. Bacteria in the large intestine play a key role in making vitamin K, which affects how readily blood clots. (Learn more about the overall benefits of probiotic bacteria and the specific ways that probiotic bacteria support digestive health.)
In fact, the influence of beneficial bacteria is so strong that some people have referred to our bacterial colonies as additional organs in the body.
Probiotics are usually discussed within the context of healthy digestion because they are densely concentrated along the entire length of the GI tract, and are especially plentiful in the intestines and colon. Their functions and benefits are numerous and include such things as promoting the absorption of nutrients from food and the supporting the overall function of the digestive system.
Why Taking Probiotics Daily Is Essential
With that background about what probiotics are, I want to touch on why I think it’s essential to support these good bacteria every day—whether that means eating probiotic foods or taking a probiotic supplement.
Remember, the bacteria in your gut (and elsewhere) are living organisms, and as such, they are affected by everything we put in our mouths: food, drinks, medications, even amalgam tooth fillings have a damaging effect on them. Unknowingly we all, to some degree, consume things that accelerate the rate at which good bacteria die off.
Drugs—both prescription and over the counter—are an excellent example of this. Antibiotics are well known for causing digestive upset, but all medications contain chemicals that are harmful to gut bacteria, even those sold over the counter.
Other factors can damage microflora, as well. A diet that’s too low in fiber and too high in refined carbohydrates can harm good bacteria. So can drinking chlorinated water and overexposure to heavy metals, pollutants, and radiation.
It only makes sense that if we do things on a daily basis to harm our good bacteria, that we also should take measures to support it as well. That’s why I recommend eating probiotic foods and/or taking a probiotic supplement every day. Read more about how to choose the best probiotic supplement for you.
Read More About Gut Bacteria and Digestive Health
Gut Bacteria and Probiotics Article Index
See a full list of articles by Dr. Williams about gut flora, probiotics, and the microbiome. Read more
9 Ways that Good Gut Bacteria Support Your Overall Health (That Have Nothing to Do With Digestion)
Learn about the wide-ranging health effects of gut bacteria, including their influence on immune health, mood, and weight management. Read more
Signs That You Have Too Much Bad Bacteria in Your Gut
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Lifestyle Habits That Damage Gut Bacteria
Learn how our normal, everyday routines can damage the microflora in our gut. Read more
How to Restore and Improve Gut Bacteria
Learn three strategies for restoring your gut health by improving its microflora. Read more
How to Choose the Best Probiotic Supplement
Learn the four criteria that Dr. Williams uses to decide whether a probiotic supplement is worth purchasing. Read more