Unlocking Health: The Comprehensive Guide to Probiotics and Digestive Health

Written by: Christine VanDoren, Nutritionist

Fact checked by: Melissa Mitri, MS, RD

human digestive system

As you start this new year, you may be on a mission to support your digestive health. With this in mind, you have to take into consideration the nutrient sources that will be most beneficial to these functions. One great way to build and maintain a happy gut is to take probiotics.

Probiotics are living microorganisms comparable to the beneficial bacteria that naturally inhabit the digestive tract. These microorganisms are able to deliver positive effects to the body, such as supporting digestion and absorption, as well as immune function.

The importance of digestive health can’t be overstated. A healthy gut is essential for your body to metabolize the food you eat properly and also influences a healthy immune response. Healthy and efficient digestion is needed to convert the foods you eat into nutrients. This is vital for maintaining the cellular health needed to sustain the energy for bodily functions.

The Science Behind Probiotics

Understanding how probiotics work can be a great first step in determining if you want to use probiotics and choosing the best fit for you. Probiotics work to maintain a healthy environment in your gut, supporting your gut lining and helping it to flourish.

Probiotics colonize (i.e., surround) your gut with beneficial bacteria that optimize the gut environment. One way this is done is through the stimulation of beneficial microbes, as the growth of these bacteria will positively affect your system. 

Types of Probiotics

There are various probiotic types to select from as you begin your journey towards digestive health. These include Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, to name a few. Another common probiotic strain is Saccharomyces boulardii, which is often seen in fermented products.

Different strains are noteworthy because each may have their own unique beneficial actions. For example, Bifidobacterium can drive the production of short-chain fatty acid metabolites that support optimal absorption. Lactobacillus has a role in maintaining healthy connections between the gut and the brain. Additionally, S. boulardii is integral for promoting normal microflora. 

Probiotics and Digestive Health

Regardless of the type of probiotic that you choose, you can be assured that your selection will be beneficial because there are many ways that probiotics support digestive health. The restorative capabilities of these microorganisms help to maintain the function of epithelial cells that line your intestinal system. This means that your system is able to discern the compounds that will suit efficient functions from the compounds that do otherwise. As a result, good, friendly substances will be permitted within your body to keep all the wheels turning properly.

Probiotics provide the immune protection that keeps the digestive system running smoothly. They have the ability to support the immune response. This results in your system being able to filter out any toxins while keeping all the nutrients in.

Probiotics have a regulatory effect on the epithelial cells in the intestines. This is advantageous as intestinal epithelial cells regulate the microbiota. The probiotics, as beneficial bacteria, can influence communication between immune cells and commensal bacteria. 

The benefits of probiotics allow your food consumption to efficiently impact the body as intended, without disturbances. After ingesting food, the nutrients and food products undergo processes. The homeostasis of the gut environment is essential for the whole body's health. This can keep you feeling good throughout the day, as uncomfortable flatulence or stomach cramping is not likely. When food products are metabolized appropriately, the body’s processes can run smoothly without any detours or delays.

Probiotics, such as lactobacillus or bifidobacterium, promote the growth of beneficial bacteria that serve as a defense for your intestines. Such a defense can maintain intestinal integrity. If integrity is compromised, it can create some discomfort like bloating or gas.

Additionally, these beneficial microorganisms can help restore the gut microbiota from distortions of various sources. These events interfere with the balance of good bacteria in the microbiome. These disturbances of the microbiome can lead to alterations in absorption, allowing the unabsorbed food materials to stay in the gut. Therefore, it is worth noting that probiotics can help to replenish the symbiotic bacteria. This can help prevent water from being pulled in via osmosis, which in turn fosters healthy regular bowel movements.  

Having probiotics to safeguard the gastrointestinal tract will allow for better utilization of the nutrients coming into your body. This is crucial because the bacteria that inhabit your intestines can interact with the foods that you consume. This can ensure that the metabolism of food is efficient. As a result, when eating rich sources of fiber or protein, you may have patterns of regular bowel movements that are discomfort-free.

Considering the main function of the gut is the digestion of food and the subsequent absorption of nutrients, you’ll want to have probiotic support for these essential functions. These living microbes can enhance nutrient absorption, which bolsters not only your digestive health but also optimizes pathways linked to the gut-brain connection. Consider that flourishing microbial diversity can upgrade certain pathways, such as the metabolism of carbohydrates or the synthesis of amino acids. You’ll want to consider probiotics as a great reinforcement for your diet because dietary patterns can influence the bacterial populations that grow.

Another reason probiotics are advantageous is the ability to ameliorate some of the stressors that the body may encounter. These stressors can impact the microbiota and lead to distortions. Probiotics will keep the microbiota in order, thus dampening the physiological reactions. In this case, after eating or participating in physical activity, you will still be able to sustain a healthy intestinal lining.  

As previously mentioned, probiotics have a vital role in the gut-brain axis. Probiotics modulate the pathways, allowing the human gut to become healthy and fit. Proper functioning of the central nervous system will allow the neurological processing and emotional regulation behaviors to be carried out smoothly.

How to Incorporate Probiotics for Optimal Digestive Health

Moving along your journey with probiotics, it is imperative that we look at some promising sources of probiotics. Knowing the natural probiotic food sources, as well as any supplement that you’re interested in, can help you start your own personalized probiotic supplement journey. 

Probiotic Foods

To determine how you intend to incorporate probiotics into your routine, it’s important first to consider the foods that you eat.

Many good dietary sources of probiotics are fermented foods. These include but are not limited to Greek yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, miso soup, tempeh, sourdough bread, or kimchi. 

Plenty of these foods make for very savory meals, like miso soup. If the umami taste is more of your speed, try having tempeh. You can also indulge in some sourdough bread or low-sugar yogurt.

Probiotic Supplements

If you’re looking beyond whole food sources of probiotics, it may be helpful to think about probiotic supplementation.

Probiotic supplements are available in various forms, such as capsules, tablets, powders, or liquids, based on your preferences. 

Powdered forms of probiotic supplements are very convenient and easy to use. Some powders can be added seamlessly to any mealtime, whether it’s breakfast or dinner. Try to match up good combinations of texture and taste if you opt for this route.

The strain that you select may be important because the function of the probiotic is strain-sensitive. 

Probiotics are acknowledged as functional foods and health supplements rather than drug medications. They are sold over the counter under flexible regulations with proofed safety profiles. There are many different product marketers of probiotics. There are also various formulas with different dosages and care.

When utilizing probiotic supplements, you’ll want to be diligent in order to generate genuine results that can clearly reflect how the strain acts on the GI tract. If you start with Bifidobacterium, for example, you’ll want to continue using this strain to generate consistent results. Keep supplementing with the same strain and try to supplement at the same time of day for each administration. 

If possible, try not to mix and cross different strains because each of our intestinal systems may react differently to certain strains. In this way, if there is a reaction to a strain, you’ll be able to pinpoint which strain caused any abnormal responses. Then you can initiate a flushing-out period and start anew with a different strain.

Potential Risks and Considerations

While probiotics are great substances that you’ll want to include in your health and wellness regimen, not every strain will be suitable for each person. Here are a few things to consider.

  • Medication interactions: We may have to consider certain interactions with medications or food allergies.
  • Food allergies: Whole foods with dairy bases, like yogurt or cheese, would not be beneficial to you if you were lactose intolerant, so it’s important to know these details to avoid bad reactions later. If lactose intolerance is the case, there are non-dairy probiotic products and whole foods. In this situation, seek plant-based probiotics and fermented foods, like cabbage or cucumber.

This is imperative because the lactose and fat content, as well as the cholesterol and allergen content, can create adverse effects. In lactose intolerance, exposure to these components could trigger disturbances within the GI tract, resulting in gas, bloating, or other responses. If dairy is off-limits for you, opt for an oat-based or beetroot-based supplement.

  • Pregnancy: It's important to contact a professional and explore using probiotics during pregnancy.
  • General health benefits: The results of research suggest that some probiotic strains have been able to maintain healthy blood glucose levels while also having a positive impact on weight management. The restorative impact on good cells can help with heart health. As the gut-brain axis has been previously mentioned, the actions of probiotics can help you stay calm and relaxed throughout the day, with a great ability to rein in stressors if they arise.
  • Immune responses: Individuals who are looking to promote healthy immune responses should consider probiotics. More specifically, consider supplementing with probiotics if there are concerns regarding the function and microflora of the colon or intestines. This is of utmost importance because the colon is home to most gut microflora. 
  • Potential side effects: Some possible side effects that are related to probiotics include temporary discomfort. In some cases, there is an increase in gas production, resulting in what can be aggressive flatulence. This may be accompanied by swelling and irregularities of the bowel movements. Other effects may include lack of taste, cramping, and soft stools. Additionally, some probiotics, like those derived from lactic bacteria, can generate substances like tyramine and histamine, which can lead to migraines and other complications.


Overall, investing in probiotics can support your digestive system and overall well-being. As we discussed, the gut, brain, and immune system are very closely related, and the integrity of all is vital to our health. 

If you’re interested in keeping your GI tract healthy and working well, your next step will be to consult a healthcare professional about probiotics. With this, you should seek guidance regarding the types of probiotics you should select and discuss the mechanism of action for them. In doing so, you can fine-tune your experience to your exact needs to ensure you get your daily dose from food and quality supplements.


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