Probiotics have been making headlines as the next big thing in nutrition and weight loss. Fans say they can revolutionize your health and help you lose stubborn fat, but others aren’t convinced. What are probiotics really, and how could they help you?
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are bacteria and other microbes that are found naturally in the body, especially in the digestive system. These bacteria form a carefully balanced “ecosystem” in your gut that helps with digestion. When your gut ecosystem is out of whack, you may notice stomach upset, bloating, and other digestive problems. Some of the most common digestive bacteria belong to the families’ bacteroidetes and firmicutes, and variations of lactobacillus bacteria are the most common probiotics in foods and supplements. Often when people talk about using probiotics for health, they mean probiotic-rich foods and supplements.
Where are probiotics found?
Probiotics are found in fermented foods, including yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir (a fermented milk drink), and kombucha (a fermented tea drink). Unpasteurized apple cider vinegar also contains probiotics.
There is also a wide range of probiotic supplement pills and other products available.
How do they work?
Probiotic foods and supplements contain probiotic bacteria. They boost the levels of “good” bacteria like lactobacillus in your body to put your bacteria ecosystem in balance. This can make your digestion more efficient and regular, helping to reduce digestive problems.
How could they help with weight loss?
Probiotics definitely affect digestion, how your body processes food and nutrients, so they may also affect weight loss and gain. There are several theories as to how probiotics affect weight.
Several studies have shown that taking lactobacillus gassi reduces existing belly fat in study participants. One study found that adult participants’ belly fat decreased by 8.5% after taking lactobacillus gassi for 12 weeks. Then, when they stopped taking the probiotic, they quickly gained the fat back. Since belly fat is often some of the hardest weight to lose, as well one of the most likely to pose health risks, this result is especially promising for weight loss. The study also found that people’s overall weight, BMI, and fat around their organs decreased.
Studies on both rats and humans have found that obese people and animals have different gut microbiomes than people and animals who are a healthy weight. Some researchers even found that transferring gut bacteria from obese rats into normal-weight rats caused them to gain more weight than other normal-weight rats. This suggests that the two groups’ digestion also works differently, since gut bacteria affect digestion.
One theory for this difference is that different probiotic bacteria cause you to absorb less fat from food as you digest it. Since fat is especially calorie-dense, this makes it so you take in fewer calories from the food you eat and gain less weight.
Probiotics may also affect hormone levels for hormones that tell you when you’re full and ones that encourage producing and storing fat. This may make you eat less and store less fat, helping with weight loss and preventing weight gain.
They have also been tied to lowering inflammation in your abdominal tissue and elsewhere in your body. Chronic inflammation is linked to obesity and weight gain, so this is another area where probiotics may help you lose weight.
What are the limitations of this research?
This research seems promising, but some scientists have found that probiotics’ impact on weight is too small to be helpful. One early study on lactobacillus gasseri saw that the bacteria did reduce fat and calorie absorption, but not enough to have a noticeable impact on your waistline.
In addition, even though probiotics have been linked to improved digestion and healthier body weight, scientists and doctors aren’t sure how to best use them for your overall health. It’s unclear what amount or dose of probiotics is most beneficial, and experts disagree on whether to take them daily as part of your nutrition routine.
What’s the bottom line for you?
Although a lot of research has been done on probiotics and weight loss, we still have a lot to learn about how probiotics affect the body.
Probiotics seem to help people have healthier and more regular digestion, and may help maintain a healthy weight, especially when combined with a healthy overall diet.
One area probiotics are likely to be helpful in is recovering from stomach illnesses and from treatment with antibiotics, which kill off important probiotic gut bacteria along with those that are making you sick. Taking probiotics after illness or antibiotic treatment can replenish your digestive system with good bacteria and restore it to balance.
Since probiotics help make your digestive system more regular, they can help to reduce and prevent bloating. Even if the probiotics don’t lead to significant weight loss, cutting down on bloating will help your waistline appear slimmer
Even if probiotics won’t help you lose a significant amount of weight, they may have other benefits for your overall health. Balancing your digestive system with probiotics has been shown to reduce symptoms from IBS, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis, and can help relieve diarrhea.
Beyond your digestive system, several studies have shown that taking probiotics can improve your mental health. Daily doses of probiotics reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). They also improved overall mood and participants reported lower levels of stress.
Probiotics might also benefit your heart by lowering your “bad” LDL cholesterol and lowering blood pressure. They may also boost your immune system by promoting the production of antibodies. These antibodies can help prevent respiratory infections like colds and the flu as well as UTIs.