Are Your Probiotics Really Doing Anything? Signs They Might (& Might Not) Be

We don't know about you, but we like to multitask around here. But taking on multiple projects at once or juggling careers, family, and hobbies is still nothing compared to the many varied kinds of tasks that our gut microbiome takes daily. That's right; we said "gut" because the group or microorganisms there command not only digestion but immunity, inflammation, and metabolism, and even influence the brain, lungs, heart, and liver, according to the Cleveland Clinic


Being so influential in our bodies means that if the microorganisms are even a little off-balance, it may cause a domino effect on the rest of our organs and bodily functions. The good news is, with the help of probiotics, you may be able to help keep any bad bacteria that might have ended up in your system under control. Healthline lists many benefits to having a good probiotic balance, including improving mental health, minimizing or eliminating allergies and eczema, improving immunity, and even losing weight.

Although some foods provide us with "good" microorganisms — both probiotics and prebiotics — many of us take extra supplements to boost our bodies, and if you're taking supplements, you want to make sure that they're doing something. While many factors can contribute to health issues — and probiotics alone may not be able to fully combat them — they may be able to help in several ways. So what changes can you expect if your probiotics are working? And what kinds of side effects could probiotics produce if they're not jiving just so with your body?


How probiotics work

Before we get into the expected results that you can see, let's talk a little about how probiotics work. This way, you'll be better prepared so that you'll know just what kinds of supplements you should be looking for and when or how to take them. So, the actual microorganisms that do the work are called probiotics, while the food that helps "feed" them is called prebiotics — supplements that combine the two into one are called symbiotics, per Healthline.


There are multiple strains of probiotics (since they're essentially bacteria), and each strain works better on different conditions in the body. For instance, the strain Lactobacillus gasseri has been found to help with weight loss, and Lactobacillus helveticus has been found to help relieve anxiety and depression.

Hyperbiotics, a precision probiotic company, says that the best time to take your probiotics (for maximum efficiency) is "first thing in the morning" before eating breakfast — and to drink "a big glass of water." Afterward, go for a prebiotic-rich breakfast to feed the probiotics, and you're golden.

If they work, you may have fewer infections

Most of us know that you can treat an infection with antibiotics, but did you know that you may be able to crowd out bacteria simply by providing more good bacteria? In recent years, as more and more studies have been done with probiotics, we've learned about their potential for helping our bodies prevent or even treat infections.


A 2012 study published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One found that the probiotic bacteria Lactobacillus paracasei could help inhibit the growth of another bacteria, Listeria, which could prevent or at least lessen the spread of infection in our organisms. Listeria is a quite common bacteria that can be found in improperly cooked meats, especially poultry. The CDC notes Listeria as the "third leading cause of death from foodborne illness" in the U.S., with "an estimated 1,600 people" getting the infection per year. 

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reports over 20 different ways that probiotics may be helpful in varying kinds of infections in the body, which different researchers studied in recent years. A 2017 review found that probiotics could help treat Clostridium difficile infections in the colon; a 2016 review found that probiotics may help treat periodontal disease, which is brought about by repeated gum infections; and a 2015 review of a dozen studies found evidence to suggest that probiotics could lessen the impact of upper respiratory infections.


If they work, you may lose weight

It may seem natural that if probiotics balance the microbiome in your gut, they would help with any other digestion or metabolic problems too. Probiotic expert Dr. Ian Stern suggests on his website that those who regularly "stay thin no matter what they eat" may have a better balance of microbiomes in their gut than most people. Improving the gut flora can help your body expel excess fat by boosting your metabolism and preventing your body from absorbing the fat you eat in your food daily.


Dr. Stern also says that probiotics might help you lose weight if the gut-brain connection has not been working correctly, and supplementing with probiotics could help to fix that. For example, having a properly functioning microbiome means that your gut will help "regulate appetite" and send a signal to your brain to tell you that you're full and to stop eating. It's important to note that a healthy diet and daily exercise are also important for anybody looking to increase the health of their gut (and the body overall). 

If they work, you may have clearer skin

We did tell you that probiotics are a whole-body thing, right? Case in point — if your probiotic levels are off, you may start seeing it on your skin. Acne, rosacea, eczema, and even just basic inflammation could be more pronounced or even flare up on you if your gut isn't balanced correctly. This doesn't mean that all acne, eczema, rosacea, or inflammation is caused by bad bacteria, though, as there are several other factors that could contribute to common skin problems


According to Healthline, there is ground for belief that "using probiotics in both pill and topical form" could assist in not only treating but preventing "skin conditions including eczema, acne, dry skin, and UV-induced skin damage." Research has also shown that even with age, as changes to the pH levels and skin health occur, probiotics can help combat it and keep the skin in a healthy balance.

If they work, you may have better immunity

According to Healthycell, over 70% of the body's immunity lies in our gut. This means that one of the many ways to promote a strong immune system involves taking care of your gut flora. The connection is made because our gut is where nutrients, minerals, and vitamins are absorbed into our bodies, and not getting enough of them may cause our bodies to be more susceptible to catching a cold or our bodies not being able to fight off certain bacteria.


The same probiotics also fight inflammation, as discussed above, when it comes to good skin, and that means inflammation anywhere else in our bodies too. A review published in 2011 in Current Opinion in Gastroenterology found different kinds of probiotics to help treat different kinds of inflammation in the body, such as using the "Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG-derived soluble protein, p40" to treat colitis, an inflammation of the large intestine.

If they work, you may be happier

Are you generally moody, on edge, anxious, or depressed? While there are many factors that could be at play here, studies show that probiotics could help with that. Healthnews reports that around 95% of the serotonin that's available in our bodies is "provided by the gut," — so if you're not happy, try adding probiotics to your daily regimen. Plus, Johns Hopkins Medicine says that it's been found that those with irritable bowel syndrome, which is linked to poor gut health, among other things, also have higher instances of depression and anxiety.


A review in the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention, & Health found that, although it "warrants further investigation," participants of 7 studies that used prebiotic and probiotic therapy were able to alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety. With that being said, probiotic supplements for mood stabilization have been one of the least studied of the probiotic benefits and the types of probiotics that are effective and just how much still needs to be studied.

If they work, you may be regular

We don't mean normal, we mean "regular," as in regular bowel movements. A "randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial" published in BioMed Research International found that probiotics were effective at regulating and improving the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Probiotics can also help with constipation, but it depends on the cause of your constipation, says MedicineNet.


Constipation that is caused by irritable bowel syndrome, pregnancy, or even just in functional constipation (which doesn't have one concrete cause but is usually diagnosed by a medical professional) are all types that probiotics may be able to help with. One note here: Probiotics won't solve your constipation worries quickly.

It can take up to four weeks to see results when taking probiotics for constipation. One study even noted that it took 71 days before the treatment was "most apparent" for functional constipation, according to MedicineNet. This means that you shouldn't be treating your constipation with just probiotics but using it as a long-term solution to help your body minimize the chances of falling into that problem again.


If they work, you may be less bloated

This one just goes hand in hand with better digestion and regular bowel movements. If you've got those two covered, your bloating issues may go away on their own. Probiotics are also helpful in absorbing and delivering the components of the food that you ingest. When vitamins are being delivered efficiently, your digestive system may function better.


Healthline also says that probiotics can help to "lower the pH level in your colon," which could be a factor to "help stool move faster through it" when the proper amount of probiotics are present in your gut.

The punctual elimination of stool means that your body can have fewer digestion issues to deal with, and since stool stays put less, you may also have less gas to deal with in your gut. So far, though, only probiotics under the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium genera have been thoroughly tested for their efficacy against bloating.

If they work, you may have more energy

As we've covered, probiotics help your body absorb minerals and vitamins better, so probiotics can also be a good boost of energy for your body. Dr. Ian Stern emphasizes on his website that a healthy microbiome in your gut "aids in the production of extra B vitamins" more efficiently, "which are essential for energy production in the body." Although the effects might not be as immediate as a cup of coffee or an energy drink, a regular intake of probiotics can help your energy levels stabilize long-term and keep you from going through a roller-coaster every day.


Secondly, probiotics can also help with energy levels indirectly by keeping you and your immunity healthy. Do you know how when you're sick, you always feel so tired and unable to do anything? This is because your body is focusing its energy on creating immune cells and fighting off the invaders. If your body is constantly doing this, it likely won't be able to provide basic, daily energy for your everyday activities and will leave you feeling constantly drained and tired.

If they work, you may sleep better

This is actually a two-way street — the health of your microbiome can affect your sleep, but the quality of your sleep can also affect the health of your gut. Let's take it from one end. Research has shown in recent years that an "imbalance" in the good and bad bacteria in our guts can lead to "leaky gut" syndrome, says Sleep Advisor.


Your leaky gut will then allow the release of "endotoxins and lots of other inflammatory compounds" that will then trigger your "fight-or-flight response." And it can happen at any time of the day — even at night.

Translation? That means no sleep for you. Or at least, not good sleep. Because how are you supposed to fall asleep if your body is telling you that there's danger and you need to run or battle? And if that wasn't enough to keep you up at night, an unhealthy gut is also not producing enough serotonin, which means not enough melatonin either.

If they work, you may think better

It's just natural that since our gut is so well connected to our brain that the former would have an impact on the latter. In recent years, several studies have tried to find the connection between supplementing with probiotics and an improved state of mind, especially for those that deal with bipolar disorder or Alzheimer's disease.


One study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrients confidently concluded that there is "plenty of evidence" to suggest that probiotics play a role "in alleviating the progression of AD" (Alzheimer's disease) and that they are "worth being inculcated in therapeutic field to treat AD."

This research is by no means complete, but it does give some insight into the idea that probiotics could be helpful in regulating your brain output. You may even notice your "brain fog" go away once you start taking probiotics, and perhaps even focus on tasks at hand much easier. It could just be that your new brain food is probiotics. 

If they work, you may be less anxious

Not only is your brain's processing power potentially increased with probiotics, but it can also affect your moods and, thus, your overall demeanor. Harvard Health Publishing reports that a study from the journal Gastroenterology found that even just eating a small number of probiotics during a four-week period led participants to react more calmly "when exposed to images of angry and frightened faces compared to a control group."


It's no wonder, either, since most of the serotonin in our bodies is produced in the gut. Probiotics thus work in more than one way to keep your anxiety at bay — it can help your body to produce more of the "happy hormone" while at the same time naturally easing any anxiety you currently have. Although this science is not quite solid yet, and there is still a lot of research to be done before strong conclusions are drawn, there is a lot of potential for probiotics to be a supportive superfood for your mental health.

If they don't work, you may feel more bloated than usual

Healthline insists that "most people do not experience side effects" when taking a probiotic supplement; however, that doesn't mean it's not possible. One of the most common side effects includes "gas and bloating." You can experience bloating if you start taking a higher dose of probiotics without your body getting used to them first.


It could also be possible to experience bloating if you take the wrong kind of probiotic for your specific needs, according to clinical nutritionist Dr. Lauren Lax on her website. You may also feel bloated if your gut just needs additional time to readjust to the levels of microorganisms and the balance between good and bad bacteria.

Each strain of probiotics will work better, or not, for a specific issue. If you're experiencing general bloating that isn't too severe compared to your usual, it could just be the probiotics taking some time to work. If the bloating is worse than what your body usually experiences, it can be likely that you're not using the right strain of probiotics for your condition.


If they don't work, you may experience headaches

Depending on the kind of probiotics you take and your body's sensitivity or inclinations, they could induce headaches due to something called biogenic amines (per Healthline). Biogenic amines are compounds that are formed when "protein-containing foods age or are fermented by bacteria." This means that yogurts, cheese, or sauerkraut can all be possible sources of biogenic amines.


The headaches you can experience from ingesting food that naturally contains probiotics are due to the fact that biogenic amines "increase or decrease blood flow," which can, in turn, cause headaches. Fortunately, this can be remedied easily. 

Consider taking probiotics in supplement form instead of from foods, which may remedy any headache problems you might be experiencing if they're related to biogenic amines. Healthline also suggests keeping a "food diary" so that you can connect your food intake to any headaches you might have throughout the day.

If they don't work, you may not improve

If you're supplementing with probiotics, it's usually because you feel the need to. Your body is not doing so great, so you're trying to figure out how to make it better. Of course, you're probably expecting to see — or feel — some sort of results. If you're not, you could consider making a change in your probiotic supplementation.


Dr. Ian Stern notes on his website that probiotics can start working as soon as 30 to 60 minutes after ingestion, and you could start feeling the "therapeutic effects" within an hour. This does depend on the kind of condition that you're taking probiotics for, of course. Don't expect results that quickly if you're looking to rebalance your gut completely — for some people, it could take months for those with "chronic conditions" to feel relief, according to Medical News Today.

Everybody is different, and there's no race to the finish line. However, if at the end of a few months, you're still not seeing any improvements, it might be a good idea to change the strain of probiotics you're taking or revisit with your doctor to see if there are any other underlying causes that can't be solved with just probiotic supplementation.


If they don't work, you could irritate allergies

There is some risk that taking certain probiotics could have the potential to irritate already-present allergies. Some strains of probiotics can produce histamine once inside the intestinal tract, which could spell trouble for those that have a low histamine tolerance (via Hyperbiotics).


In theory, it could be argued that you should just stay away from strains that produce histamine in the body, but there hasn't been enough research in that area to give conclusive data yet. A few strains, such as Lactobacillus buchneri, Lactobacillus helveticus, Lactobacillus hilgardii, and Streptococcus thermophilus, have been identified to produce histamines in the body. Still, there could also be others that haven't been studied as closely yet.

Additionally, you could be experiencing more allergy symptoms due to the additives in the probiotic supplements that you're taking. Some supplements contain dairy, soy, or eggs, which could be a trigger for those sensitive to these ingredients. Look for probiotics that don't contain any allergy-triggering ingredients, and consider changing your supplement if you feel like it's doing more harm than good.


Are probiotics safe for everyone? Here's what we know

For most people, probiotics are a great source of health — but that might not be the case for everyone. Some individuals, such as those who are immunocompromised, can be put at a greater risk of infection or illness when taking probiotics. According to Healthline, "It is estimated that only about one in one million people who take probiotics containing Lactobacilli bacteria will develop an infection." 


The Cleveland Clinic also notes that those who have just undergone surgery or have other "serious medical conditions" should avoid taking probiotics. Lastly, those who are already experiencing severe acute pancreatitis should steer clear of probiotic supplements as they can be fatal, per a study conducted in The Lancet journal. 

"Probiotics can be beneficial for some individuals. But it also seems that for some individuals they can make things worse," Erica Sonnenburg, a research scientist in microbiology and immunology at Stanford, tells The Washington Post. Therefore, it's always recommended to seek the advice of your doctor before making any changes to your health and adding probiotics into your diet, whether you have an underlying health condition or not.