What are Probiotics and When to Take Them?

Every day, we are unknowingly exposed to billions of bacteria - we even ingest them with our daily food. There are many bacteria that can cause illnesses, but they can also be used specifically to perform health-promoting functions. These good bacteria are called probiotics. Nutritionist Anne Hustig answers the most important questions about probiotics and how they should be taken.

Anne Hustig Mar 10, 2022
What are probiotics and when to take them

"Probiotics are living, reproducing microorganisms that, when taken in appropriate amounts, provide health benefits to the body."
Source: Bischoff, Stephan C. (2009): Probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics, 1st edition, Stuttgart, New York: Georg Thieme Verlag.

Probiotics have been known for a long time and can be found especially in fermented foods. Classic examples are lactic acid bacteria in yoghurt and sauerkraut, which produce the typical sour taste through fermentation, and bifidobacteria.

Nowadays, probiotics are sold as capsules or powders in various compositions due to their positive and appreciated properties. These preparations can be used to increase an efficient dose and thus the hoped-for efficacy.

Probiotics must meet the following criteria to be called probiotics: 

  • They must be stable and alive until they are consumed
  • They must be a food, i.e. non-pathogenic (disease-causing) and non-toxic
  • They must be living microorganisms suitable for industrial production
  • They must survive the gastrointestinal tract ecosystem (stomach and bile acid)
  • They must have a health benefit for the host organism

What effects do probiotics have on health?

Probiotics can be used for a wide range of applications and can therefore be beneficial to most people.

They can potentially:

  • reduce the growth of germs that cause disease
  • strengthen the body's barrier function
  • have a positive effect on the regulation of the body's immune response. 

If the body is exposed to long-term stress, poor sleep, alcohol, an unbalanced diet, or obesity, this can unbalance the gut flora and weaken it. Because the microbiome is so important for maintaining physical functions and even mental health, the targeted use of probiotics can help rebalance these functions and support the proliferation of good bacteria. 

When are probiotics used?

In medicinal practice, probiotics are often used as a therapy to rebuild a weakened intestinal flora. On the one hand, this occurs when one's own body was previously attacked by bad bacteria and these had to be fought with antibiotics, for example. Unfortunately, this treatment also kills the good bacteria, whose absence can then throw the intestinal flora out of balance. 

Since it can take months to rebuild a healthy intestinal flora after antibiotic treatment, it is important to take a differentiated view of their use. If there is no way around antibiotics, it is advisable to work on a plan for rebuilding the intestinal flora together with the doctor who treated the patient. Taking probiotics can help here.

Likewise, probiotics are used to shorten the effects of viral- or bacteria-induced diarrhoea, to improve inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and to prevent atopic dermatitis. The main goal in treating people with IBS is to enable them to live as symptom-free as possible through therapeutic procedures.

Have you already planned your next big trip? Regular intake of probiotics might show a preventive effect against travelers' diarrhoea - definitely worth a try!

And don't forget: Probiotics can even produce water-soluble vitamins.

When should you take probiotics?

In the morning after getting up, the digestive tract is still empty and the production of stomach and bile acids is still low. It therefore makes sense to take probiotics at this time on an empty stomach. This makes it less likely that the bacteria will be inactivated by these secretions. Even though high-quality probiotics have a high resistance to these influences. However, it is also advisable to take probiotics around 30 minutes after a meal if you have a sensitive stomach.

How much probiotics should be taken and for how long?

The appropriate dose and duration of intake depends on the respective bacterial strain and one’s individual need. Every person is different, and so is their intestinal flora, the effects, and uses of probiotics on them. 

This is where the advantages and disadvantages of capsules and probiotic foods or powders become apparent. The number of bacterial strains in capsules can be controlled very precisely and thus the effect of the amounts used in clinical studies can be reproduced. 

Probiotic foods or powders, on the other hand, are more difficult to dose, but usually taste better and carry less risk of overdose. But even overdosage usually only results in some uncomfortable bowel feelings like bloating or constipation. Which can be easily resolved by lowering the intake. If it is a probiotic supplement, the correct dose is usually indicated on the package or package leaflet.

When can you start to feel an effect?

Unfortunately, probiotics are not miracle cures and therefore take up to a few months to achieve the desired effect, depending on personal needs. Everybody is different so it will vary from person to person. Some people may feel the effects immediately, while it may take longer for others. It can also be the case that no obvious positive effects are felt at all. By the way, no changes can also be a sign that everything is fine. However, the first noticeable effects could be 

smoother digestion, going to the bathroom more easily or more regularly. After a few weeks, a happy intestinal flora could already influence your mood and energy level. Since a large part of our immune defense takes place in the gut, positive effects on the immune system, metabolism, cardiovascular system, and even the skin can become apparent after further time. 

So the little bacteria helpers are pretty cool, what do you think? For optimal gut health, it is advisable to combine probiotics with the intake of prebiotics. You can read all about the difference between probiotics and prebiotics here.