Everyone needs probiotics

Do you know that the digestive tract is colonised by 10 trillion living microorganisms with the combined weight of 1-2kg? How do we ensure that these living microorganisms are not harming us? This is the job of probiotics.

Defining probiotics

World Health Organization (WHO) defines probiotics as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.” [1] Historically, many cultures around the world have used fermented products, such as yogurt, cheese, kefir, kimchi, etc. for nutritional and therapeutic purposes, without awareness of the probiotic microorganisms in them. The history of the use of probiotics can be traced back to nearly 10,000 years ago [2].


The recognition and identification of selected bacteria that can exert health benefits to human body only started since early last century. Since then many strains of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria have been characterized and widely use as “good” bacteria added into commercially made foods and beverages. Some notable ones include L. acidophilus, L. casei, L. fermentum, L. Rhamnosus, B. bifidum and B. breve. For a strain of probiotics to be useful to human, it needs to withstand the stomach acid and bile when digested. It should be able to attach to the intestinal tract and compete for space against other types of bacteria, as well as protecting the intestinal tract against harmful bacteria [3]. Probiotics form communities of “good” bacteria, often called healthy gut flora, that can protect the body from disease pathogens.

Two other terms often associated with probiotics are prebiotics and synbiotics. Basically, prebiotics are nondigestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth or activity of bacteria in the GI tract. They are “food” for the probiotics. Synbiotics are a combination of a prebiotic and a probiotic. We will not go into detail of prebiotics and synbiotics here.

Health benefits of probiotics

The health benefits of probiotics have been widely studied, there are more than 5000 articles published in scientific journals since year 2000 [4]. While probiotics are introduced initially to improve digestive health, we now know that it has far wider health implications. Some important health attributes of probiotics include [5]:

Probiotics form protective layer in the intestinal wall
Probiotics form protective layer in the intestinal wall
  • Antimicrobial properties,
  • Anticancer properties,
  • Enhance immune response,
  • Stimulate fermentation of short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which may reduce the risk of developing gastrointestinal disorders; cancer, and cardiovascular disease[6].
  • Preventing formation of fatty acids in arteries
  • Lowering of cholesterol level
  • Reducing insulin resistance
  • Suppression of obesity
  • Regulate allergic reactions
  • Protection against vaginal or urinary tract infections

There are many more potential benefits of probiotics currently under research.

Taking probiotics

Miso is a good non-dairy source of probiotics
Miso is a good non-dairy source of probiotics

With the host of benefits that we can derive from probiotics, everyone should include probiotics as part of one’s diet. Probiotics can be found in many foods. Some common sources include:

  • Yogurt – the most commonly use probiotic food,
  • Other dairy foods such as soft cheese, buttermilk, and kefir
  • Fermented soy products such as miso, tempeh, and fermented tofu.
  • Pickled foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, etc.
  • Cultured probiotic drinks, e.g. Yakult

Therefore, it is important to include some form of fermented foods in the diet to ensure intake of probiotics [7].

Probiotic supplements are also widely available in various forms including tablets, capsules, powders, or liquids. These are prepared strains of probiotics with a specific number of microorganisms. Here are some considerations for choosing probiotic supplements:

  • Read the label to know what strains of probiotics the product contains – it is good to have multiple strains unless the product supplies a unique strain that cannot be easily found.
  • Known the number of microorganisms the product should contain; this is normally specific in CFU/g. A minimum count of 107 CFU/g is required for any probiotic product, even though many contain much more, the more the merrier.
  • Note the expiry date, probiotics are living microorganisms and they only survive a specific period of time. Therefore, the longer they are on the shelf, the less number of them survive.
  • Note the storage requirement of the product, some probiotic supplements need to be kept in the fridge while others do not.
  • Know the recommended dose
  • Know the company that supplies the supplements – choose a reputable and reliable company
Sample product information of a probiotic supplement
Sample product information of a probiotic supplement

Do I need to take probiotic supplements?

probiotic-pills-on-table-725x544Some people may question the need to take probiotic supplements when there are plenty of food sources. Basically, probiotic supplementation is required for two important reasons:

  1. It has been estimated that approximately 109 CFU per day of probiotic microorganisms is necessary to elicit health effects in human. Even if a product, such as yogurt, contains 107 CFU/g of microorganisms, one need to eat 100g of yogurt to meet the requirement. Most of the time we are not sure of the number and types of living microorganisms in the food we consume, and we simply can’t take a large amount of fermented food every day.
  2. Good probiotics supplements normally packed with a very high number of living microorganisms, multiple strains or a unique formulation of probiotics to for the body’s needs. Therefore, it is more suitable for therapeutic application, especially for anyone who has taken anti-biotics recently or on long term medication that can deplete the good bacteria in the body. Taking probiotic supplements can help with quick replenishment of the good bacteria.

Different probiotic strains have been associated with different effects, and many of which is still not fully understood [5]. Therefore, a good strategy is to take a variety of probiotic foods and regular supplement with good probiotic supplementation to ensure optimal intake of good bacteria for better health.


[1]         FAO/WHO, Probiotics in food – Health and nutritional properties and guidelines for evaluation, Rome, 2006. doi:10.1201/9781420009613.ch16.

[2]         M. Ozen, E.C. Dinleyici, The history of probiotics: the untold story, Benef. Microbes. 6 (2015) 159–165. doi:10.3920/BM2014.0103.

[3]         M. Kechagia, D. Basoulis, S. Konstantopoulou, D. Dimitriadi, K. Gyftopoulou, N. Skarmoutsou, E.M. Fakiri, Health benefits of probiotics: a review., ISRN Nutr. 2013 (2013) 481651. doi:10.5402/2013/481651.

[4]         E.C. Verna, S. Lucak, Use of probiotics in gastrointestinal disorders: what to recommend?, Therap. Adv. Gastroenterol. 3 (2010) 307–19. doi:10.1177/1756283X10373814.

[5]         R. Nagpal, A. Kumar, M. Kumar, P. V. Behare, S. Jain, H. Yadav, Probiotics, their health benefits and applications for developing healthier foods: A review, FEMS Microbiol. Lett. 334 (2012) 1–15. doi:10.1111/j.1574-6968.2012.02593.x.

[6]         J.M.W. Wong, R. de Souza, C.W.C. Kendall, A. Emam, D.J.A. Jenkins, Colonic health: fermentation and short chain fatty acids., J. Clin. Gastroenterol. 40 (2006) 235–43. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16633129 (accessed September 7, 2016).

[7]         S. Parvez, K.A. Malik, S. Ah Kang, H.-Y. Kim, Probiotics and their fermented food products are beneficial for health., J. Appl. Microbiol. 100 (2006) 1171–85. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2672.2006.02963.x.

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