Probiotics are live microorganisms—such as bacteria and yeasts—present in fermented foods, supplements (both over-the-counter and prescription) and even beauty products. They help the body digest food, destroy bad bacteria and provide vitamins, among other benefits, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). Probiotics work mainly by impacting microorganisms found in the microbiome of the large intestine, which houses trillions of bacteria, fungi and microbes (small living things).
Probiotics run the gamut, too, when it comes to types—their name includes a Latin name for genus and species, followed by their specific strain. There are many different strains of probiotics—and each delivers different health benefits. Common probiotics include those in the groups Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, Escherichia and Bacillus.
Not all of the probiotic strains in probiotic supplements have evidence-backed health benefits, so it’s important to read the label carefully before selecting a supplement. The Supplements Facts label on the bottle should list the strain(s) of the probiotic, the total weight of the microorganisms in the product and the number of colony forming units, or CFUs, per serving, according to the National Institutes of Health Office on Dietary Supplements.
What Do Probiotics Do?
Probiotics are live microorganisms that act in the digestive tract and affect your gut microbiome. They can help protect against harmful bacteria and improve digestion and gut function. Different probiotic strains yield different health benefits.
Are Probiotics Good for You?
Studies dating back to the 1990s have suggested probiotics may be effective in treating certain gastrointestinal illnesses, possibly delaying the onset of some allergies in children and in the treatment and prevention of vaginal and urinary infections.
Other benefits of probiotics may include the following, according to Harvard Health:
Consuming the right type of probiotic for you may help improve digestion and gut function while also providing protection against harmful microorganisms. However, there is no formal guidance for the use of probiotics in healthy people. Because of this, it’s recommended that you talk with your doctor before deciding on which probiotic to choose.