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What are probiotics and how can they support our wellbeing?

What are probiotics and how can they support our wellbeing?

If it seems like probiotics are having a moment – you’re absolutely right. Over the past few decades, researchers have learned a great deal about the microbiome; that’s the colony of friendly bacteria and microbes that lives in everyone’s gut. It turns out these good bugs play an essential role in maintaining our health. Probiotics are an effective way to support your microbiome, and a healthier microbiome might be a key to maintaining better health.

Lifestyle insight
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What are probiotics?

Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide health benefits when you take them in the right amounts.1,2 They’ve been around since the start of time, and the word ‘probiotic’ is derived from the Latin word ‘pro’ which mean ‘for’ and the Greek word ‘biotikos’ which means ‘life’. Probiotics contain the same bacteria and yeasts found in the environment and your Gastrointestinal (GI) tract.2

Bacteria have helped to preserve and ferment foods for thousands of years. If you’ve ever had yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, or sourdough bread, you’ve eaten some of the bacteria used to make probiotics. Many people think probiotics and fermented foods are one and the same. However, the term probiotic refers to certain species and strains of bacteria or yeast that have demonstrated health benefits when consumed by humans.2

Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are among the most common species of bacteria used for probiotic supplements. These are especially helpful for intestinal problems. Certain strains of E. coli and Bacillus species are also in probiotics, along with the yeast Saccharomyces boulardii.1,2,3 


Probiotics are named by their genus, species, subspecies (if it exists), and strain. For example: 2



















Each probiotic has its own specific benefits and works in different ways. Products designed for specific health conditions may blend certain probiotics that work well together.


Prebiotics are probiotic-boosters

Probiotics work even better when they’re paired with prebiotics. These are types of nondigestible fiber and sugars found in many plant foods. Prebiotic fiber and sugar serve as food for probiotics. Thus, prebiotics help probiotics to grow and multiply. Prebiotic-rich foods include:1 

  • Asparagus
  • Beans
  • Chicory
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Green bananas (the greener, the better)
  • Wheat

Some prebiotics are man-made and used as ingredients in food products. Inulin and fructooligosaccharides (FOS) are two examples of manufactured prebiotics.1 You might find these in fiber-enriched foods such as snack bars.

Humans can’t digest prebiotics — but your bacteria can, and oh, how they love it! When prebiotic fiber and sugars pass into your colon, your healthy bacteria gets busy. They start breaking it down by fermenting it. That fermentation fest produces compounds with significant health benefits. Prebiotics can:1 

  • Help nourish the cells in your large intestine and may even reduce the risk of certain colon issues
  • Boost the growth of good bacteria in your large intestine
  • Help block out harmful bacteria and microbes
  • Help improve absorption of minerals such as calcium and magnesium. 

While probiotics tend to get the spotlight, prebiotics play an important supporting role, too. They work together to enhance your gut microbiome. That’s why good probiotic supplements often come as a probiotic-prebiotic combo.


What’s all the fuss about the gut?

Your gut (AKA large intestine or colon) is so much more than a passageway for your poop; it’s a part of your body that could hold the secret to better health. Your gut houses the largest colony of microorganisms in your body.3 Trillions of them, in fact. They include: 

  • Bacteria
  • Fungi
  • Viruses
  • Protozoa
  • Yeasts

These aren’t the kind of microbes that make you sick. Instead, they’re good bugs that keep you healthy. Collectively, this colony of microorganisms is referred to as your gut microbiome. You have microbiomes in other parts of your body, too, including your mouth and skin.

Even though they’ve only discovered the tip of a vast iceberg, scientists believe the gut’s microbiome can either maintain good health or contribute to the management of various diseases.

For example, scientists know healthy people have a different mix of bacteria and other microbes compared to people with digestive problems such as irritable bowel sydrome (IBS).

Perhaps one of the most exciting discoveries is that your gut microbiome also influences how your brain communicates with your gut and vice-versa. It’s called the gut-brain axis.  You’ve experienced the effects of your gut-brain axis when you’ve had the feeling of “butterflies in your stomach” or “a gut feeling” about someone. Your gut-brain axis affects how the nerves and muscles in your digestive tract work and how they, in turn, communicate with the brain.

Learn more about the gut-brain axis in our article What is the gut-brain axis? and how the gut-brain axis can affect your mood in our article Did you know probiotics may help your mood?



  1. Markowiak P, Śliżewska K. Effects of probiotics, prebiotics, and synbiotics on human health. Nutrients. 2017;9(9):1021. Published 2017 Sep 15. doi:10.3390/nu9091021 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5622781/ 
  2. Probiotics and prebiotics. World Gastroenterology Organisation.  https://www.worldgastroenterology.org/guidelines/global-guidelines/probiotics-and-prebiotics/probiotics-and-prebiotics-english. Accessed April 23, 2021. 
  3. Behnsen J, Deriu E, Sassone-Corsi M, Raffatellu M. Probiotics: properties, examples, and specific applications. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2013;3(3):a010074. Published 2013 Mar 1. doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a010074 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3579206/ 

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