10 Incredible Health Benefits of Probiotics—That Don’t Have to Do with Digestion

You may know that "good" bacteria called probiotics may help soothe digestive ills, but these good bugs could improve almost every aspect of your health. Here's what you need to know.

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A healthier heart

Probioticsmarekuliasz/ShutterstockPart of how to have your most heart-healthy day might be to take probiotics, friendly bacteria found in yogurt, fermented foods, aged cheeses, and supplements. In research presented at a recent American Heart Association meeting, LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, levels of people with high cholesterol who took the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri dropped by over 11 percent in nine weeks. One way the bacteria can reduce blood lipids is through an enzyme, bile salt hydrolase, according to Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD, executive science officer of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics. "Bile salts are precursors to cholesterol, and gut microbiota can impact bile salt levels," she says. NYC-based registered dietitian Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD, bestselling author and founder of The F-Factor Diet, says bacterial cells also scoop up cholesterol as they grow, leaving less in the blood. "The more bacterial cells that grow and divide, the more cholesterol is required to stabilize their cell membranes, which can contribute to an overall cholesterol-lowering effect," she says. To get started, make sure you add these probiotic foods to your diet right now.

Less anxiety

anxietyAndrzej Wilusz/ShutterstockGood bacteria may be among the most trusted home remedies for natural anxiety relief. People who took supplements containing specific strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium longum supplements for 30 days were less stressed than those who didn't take them, in a British Journal of Nutrition study. "Many neurotransmitters that regulate mood, like serotonin, are located in the gut," says Frank Lipman, MD, bestselling author and founder of Be Well and the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City. "If your gut is healthy it can help keep anxiety at bay." The gut is connected directly to the brain via the vagus nerve, Sanders explains, so what goes on in the gut can be directly transmitted to the brain.

Cleaner teeth and gumssmileAir Images/Shutterstock

Everyday mistakes that can ruin your teeth might include skipping your supplement of good bacteria. A review of research found that Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium can reduce some strains of harmful bacteria that cause gum disease. They may also "decrease cavities in kids, especially in ages 3 to 4," says Angela U. Tucker, MD, a family medicine physician at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Recent research has shown that the good bacteria helps neutralize enamel-destroying acid in your mouth. Other studies have also shown how the good stuff helps fight other bacteria that cause bad breath.

Fewer colds and coughs

coldmichaelheim/ShutterstockYogurt (or the probiotics it contains) is one of the immunity-boosting foods you need to fight off colds and flu. In an analysis of 10 studies, taking probiotic supplements cut the number of upper respiratory tract infections by 12 percent and reduced the number of people who had at least one bad cold. Dr. Lipman says that 70 percent of our immune system is housed in our gut, which is why it's so important for overall health. According to Zuckerbrot, beneficial bacteria creates an acidic environment that's inhospitable to harmful bacteria. In addition, good bacteria can have a major impact on the lymphatic system, the body's sewer system and an important part of our immune function. "Certain [good bacteria] can help to stabilize the lining of the gut where the lymph tissue resides and prevent harmful substances from being absorbed," Dr. Tucker says.

Managing IBD and ulcerative colitisbroccoliMikhaylovskiy/Shutterstock

If you eat this one food every day, you can improve your gut health (hint: It's broccoli). In the study on the veggie, researchers found it to help maintain healthy bacteria, which reduces inflammation in the lining of the gut. This may help improve some chronic conditions such as ulcerative colitis (UC) and other inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), according to research. According to Sanders, some probiotics can reduce intestinal inflammation by tamping down the activity of substances that produce inflammation, and increasing the activity of substances that reduce inflammation. "This may help with IBD and colitis, which are associated with some intestinal inflammation," she adds.

Reducing allergies and eczema

babyDasha Muller/ShutterstockThe gut may also influence other inflammatory, autoimmune, or allergic reactions, including eczema. "Most of the data concerning prevention of allergic conditions have been found for infants and children," Dr. Tucker says. "Studies showed decreased chances of eczema in children born to breastfeeding moms who received probiotics for the last four weeks of pregnancy and through first three months of life." Another study showed that a certain bacterial combination reduced seasonal allergies, however the "mechanism to show how they curb allergy symptoms has yet to be determined," Zuckerbrot says. In general, Dr. Lipman says good gut bacteria can help your body manage its immune responses. "When your immune system is working properly it helps create proper checks and balances against perceived threats," he says. "If your gut—and therefore your immune system—is out of balance, it may mistakenly overreact to things like food and the environment. Keeping your gut healthy will support proper checks and balances." Here are other ways to boost your immune system and avoid getting sick.

Preventing vaginal infectionswomanLuna Vandoorne/Shutterstock

Thirty percent of women have a down-there infection called bacterial vaginosis, and they don't even know it—but it happens when the vagina's special mix of bacteria gets disrupted. "Bacterial vaginosis can be treated by oral or vaginal application of probiotics," Dr. Tucker says. "The lactobacilli increased microflora's return to normal, resolving the BV. Although not as effective as an antibiotic, they're still found to be better than acetic acid or placebo" in studies. But, their effectiveness in treating yeast infections is limited. "It can be considered though for people who have recurrent yeast infections or those unable to take first-line therapies," she says.

Combating the effects of antibioticsAntibioticsPavel Kubarkov/Shutterstock

Do you really need to take a probiotic after antibiotics? Antibiotics can wipe out the good bacteria as well as the bad, wreaking havoc on your gut. A recent review showed that taking S. boulardii supplements while taking antibiotics helped minimize the associated diarrhea by 25 to 30 percent. "Taking antibiotics can disrupt the normal protective microbiome, and it typically takes six to eight weeks for normal microbiota to recover after antibiotic exposure," Zuckerbrot says. "S. boulardii acts as temporary protective microflora until full recovery of the microbiome is achieved."

Weight loss

scaleAfrica Studio/ShutterstockAnother one of the many pleasant probiotics side effects may be weight loss—among the foods that will turn your meals into calorie burners are those which help keep your gut working optimally. One study found obese women to lose weight with Lactobacillus rhamnosus supplements. Although Zuckerbrot says more research is needed to prove efficacy, a review of research found that obese people have higher levels of certain types of gut bacteria compared to leaner people. The bacteria in leaner people, called Firmicutes, "produce a more complete metabolism of a given energy source, thus promoting more efficient absorption of calories and subsequent weight gain," she says.

Battling cancer

doctorPressmaster/ShutterstockAmong the ways to cut your cancer risk may be keeping your gut bacteria healthy, according to a growing body of research. "Healthy gut flora destroys pathogenic microorganisms that can damage cells and promote cancerous tissue growth," Zuckerbrot says. A recent review found that unhealthy bacterial toxins create a good environment for colon cancer. "This leads to chronic inflammation, autoimmunity of the host, and proliferation of abnormal cells, which may develop into cancerous cells," Zuckerbrot says. Sanders says possible anti-cancer mechanisms of good bacteria may include improving immune response and metabolizing potential carcinogens. Plus, a healthy gut keeps things moving along in your colon, which helps rid your body of damaging toxins more quickly.

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