Medically reviewed by
Diana Morgan, MS, CISSN
8 min read
You may have heard of probiotics, but you may be fuzzy on what they are and how they actually support your health. Probiotics are living microorganisms such as bacteria and yeasts, which balance and regulate the microbiome of your digestive system by colonizing your gut with beneficial, or “good,” bacteria.
Your body contains good bacteria and potentially harmful, or “bad” bacteria at all times, and both types are also present in your gut. A healthy gut is one with the right balance of good and bad. Microbes in a healthy gut help us form barriers that protect our digestive systems from harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Essentially, a healthy microbiome means a healthy gut, and ideally that means your good and bad bacteria will remain in balance most of the time.
That’s where probiotics come in. Probiotics work by encouraging the growth of good bacteria and slowing the growth of harmful bacteria.
If you are looking to improve your gut health, immune health, or vaginal health, probiotics may be a good place to start. Luckily, probiotics are easy to get through fermented foods — like yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, and miso — or supplementing.
The term “microbiome” has become part of the everyday gut-health lexicon, but chances are you’re still wondering: What exactly is it? The microbiome is essentially an ecosystem of bacteria—good and bad—otherwise known as microbes that live in and on the human body, including in the gut, vagina, urinary tract, and mouth and on your skin.
Studies show that having a diversity of microbes working in harmony in your gut, for instance, can help to protect your digestive system from harmful bacteria, and fungi. Probiotics can help by stepping in to ensure that harmony, meaning the right mix of microbes in the right amounts.
The research is constantly evolving, and results from existing studies make it clear that probiotics can provide valuable support in a health routine.
From digestive health to women's health, probiotic supplements have been well studied in recent years for their positive benefits. Below are a few of the studied benefits of probiotics:
Recent research has shown that probiotics may help support a healthy vaginal PH balance (i.e. no major fluctuations in acidity). One strain of probiotic in particular — Lactobacillus acidophilus — is among the most promising candidates for improving vaginal pH imbalances.
Lactobacilli are one type of natural microorganism that already live inside the vagina, and help maintain balance and prevent infection. A vaginal imbalance may occur when the good microbes, like lactobacilli, decrease and bad microbes within the vagina increase. Such an imbalance might result in experiencing uncomfortable symptoms such as itching or painful urination.
Research shows that women over 50 may be more likely to experience health challenges such as digestive concerns, urinary tract infections, and weight gain.
Hormones, for example, most often associated with sex and reproduction actually play a major role in digestion. That’s because the cells of your intestinal lining have receptor sites for hormones like estrogen and progesterone that react to stimuli.
During perimenopause (the phase before menopause begins) and menopause, rising and declining hormone levels can often lead to the reduced production of stomach acid and slower gastrointestinal motility—this means it takes longer for food to travel through your digestive tract. These shifts can result in a number of digestive issues, including gas and bloating.
According to the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA), a probiotic’s label should contain several pieces of useful information (see below). If this information is missing, that can be a red flag that the probiotic might not provide the benefits you’re expecting.
As with any ingestible, it is recommended you purchase your probiotic from reputable brands. A probiotic label should always include the:
Strain: Look for well-researched strains of probiotics like Lactobacillus acidophilus (LA‑5), Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and Bifidobacterium lactis (BB‑12) which have been shown to help colonize the gut with “good” bacteria.* Some probiotics contain one strain of bacteria, whereas other probiotics contain a blend of various probiotics.
Quantity of microorganisms: Look for the quantity in colony forming units (CFUs), which indicate the number of viable cells. Amounts may be written on labels as, for example, 1 x 109 for 1 billion CFU or 1 x 1010 for 10 billion CFU. Some probiotics contain 1 to 10 billion CFUs per dose, and others contain up to 50 billion CFUs; a higher CFU count doesn’t necessarily translate to more potency.
Storage information: Some probiotics need to be refrigerated, others do not. Proper storage can impact a probiotic’s potency and shelf life, so always check for and follow the product’s storage instructions.
The AGA also recommends you speak with your doctor to determine whether a probiotic is a good fit for you, based on your health history and needs.
If you are seeking a probiotic supplement, you may find the selection process overwhelming. Here’s a good place to start: Two probiotic formulations that may work well for you are a probiotic blend or a yeast probiotic — Care/of offers both!
A probiotic blend combines a few of the most studied strains of bacteria, and may confer multiple health benefits in one easy to swallow capsule.
If you find the research and science daunting, and are not interested in starting with a probiotic supplement right away — not to worry! You can always start by adding foods with probiotics in them to your diet.
Delicious examples of probiotic foods include kombucha, miso, sauerkraut, yogurt, kimchi, kefir, and tempeh. These foods are fermented, and may provide nutritious methods of obtaining beneficial bacteria. A bit of online research will help with details on the bacteria that each of these foods contain, and their specific benefits.