You may notice the term “probiotics” popping up more and more often. These products seem to be everywhere. As you walk down your local supermarket aisles, you will find probiotics in fermented food such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha, as well as supplement pills. Additionally, the global market for probiotics is growing rapidly. It was estimated at $62 billion in 2022 and is anticipated to reach $131 billion by 2032.
Probiotics—meaning “for life”—are live bacteria and yeast that make up part of the trillion microbes in our gut microbiome. When you eat enough probiotics, they provide multiple health benefits, including improving digestive health, boosting the immune system and restoring the natural balance of gut bacteria.
How probiotics provide these benefits is still being explored. Experts point to these possibilities:
Probiotic bacteria have the ability to engage in a battle for resources and attachment sites with harmful bacteria in the intestinal wall. They do this by producing antimicrobial products such as short-chain fatty acids and toxic substances called bacteriocins and microcins. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, the two most common strains of bacteria, can directly stop the growth of and kill bacteria such as Salmonella typhimurium, which can be a cause of food poisoning. Probiotics can also promote a healthy balance of gut microbiota and prevent infections by fighting harmful bacteria.
Probiotics interact with immune cells in the gut to help reduce inflammation and make the immune system work better. This interaction can be beneficial in preventing and treating various gastrointestinal-related diseases. For example, in one study, mice who ate a lot of fatty foods had changes in their gut bacteria that were linked to various gastrointestinal diseases. But when the mice were given probiotics, the balance of different types of bacteria in their guts improved. This helped reduce inflammation and improve their health. So, by using probiotics to control the bacteria in our guts, we can effectively treat problems caused by inflammation.
Lastly, probiotics can promote mucus production and strengthening of the tight junction between intestinal cells so they are nicely sealed. This enhancement can prevent harmful substances from entering the bloodstream and reduce the risk of gut inflammatory conditions.
Try starting your morning with a yogurt smoothie, add a spoonful of kimchi or sauerkraut to your sandwich or throw some fermented vegetables into your salad. You’ll be getting a dose of probiotics to help keep your digestive system healthy.
Raz Abdulqadir is a PhD candidate in the biomedical science program at Penn State College of Medicine. Her research examines the role of probiotic-host interactions on the modulation of the intestinal epithelial tight junction barrier.