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  • Writer's pictureMarissa Mekelburg MS, RDN, CLT, HHP

What Are The Signs You Need Probiotics?

Have you ever wondered if you should be adding probiotics to your daily routine?

If you are a regular to my blog, you know that the topic of probiotics comes up frequently. Today we’re going to explore ​​what are the signs you need probiotics.

For those of you who are new here: Welcome! My name is Marissa Mekelburg, MS, RDN, CLT, HHP, and I am a Digestive Health Dietitian Nutritionist. I specialize in GI conditions like IBS, food sensitivities, and autoimmune conditions.

You might be surprised to learn that digestive issues like diarrhea and constipation are only one of the signs that you may benefit from taking probiotics. In my practice, I often see that improving the health of your digestive tract can have positive effects on your entire body.

What exactly is a probiotic? Probiotics are bacteria and yeast that are in some way beneficial to your body (1). You can find a detailed explanation of what probiotics are in my recent blog, Probiotics 101: What Are They and Do You Need Supplements?

Digestive issues are usually the first thing that people think of when they hear probiotics - so let’s start our discussion with my favorite topic - your digestive tract!

someone pouring a pretty pink bottle of kombucha into a glass.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Digestive Symptoms

Probiotics can help to improve many digestive symptoms, including:

  • Constipation

  • Diarrhea

  • Nausea

  • Gas/bloating

  • Recent food poisoning

Your body has its own ecosystem that includes all the bacteria and organisms that live on your skin and in your digestive tract - these are also referred to as your microbiota (or microbiome). The number of bacteria that your body is home to has been estimated in the trillions (10).

Some of these organisms can improve your health - let’s call these the “good guys”. On the flip side, some of these organisms can cause harm to your health and body - we’ll call these the “bad guys”.

Just like in any ecosystem, your body has a limited amount of resources (like food) available, and the good guys and the bad guys are competing to survive. If you have too many of one type of bacteria, it can be more difficult for others to live and survive.

If you have recently recovered from a bout of traveler's diarrhea or food-borne illness, your digestive tract has been out of balance with too many of the bad guys. In these cases, the bad guys are infectious bacteria that caused your illness.

Non-infectious causes of diarrhea and digestive issues like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) have also been associated with having an imbalance of bacteria in your digestive tract (also called dysbiosis). If you suffer from IBD you may have an increased number of inflammatory bacteria (7).

Your bowels (and your whole body) will function best if you have a good mix of different kinds of the good bacteria. Taking probiotics can help to restore your body’s ecosystem and help your digestive tract recover from the infectious or inflammatory bacteria.

What may surprise you, is that probiotics can help with constipation too. Having the right mix of bacteria in your digestive tract can improve gut motility (how quickly food moves through your gut) and pain perception.

There is research that shows taking probiotics can help to improve the frequency and consistency of bowel movements, helping to relieve symptoms of constipation (11).

Antibiotics can have a big impact on your microbiome and probiotics can help to keep your system balanced. Have you ever taken antibiotics and had the unpleasant side effect of diarrhea? Keep reading to find out how probiotics can help to repair your ecosystem.

Recent Course of Antibiotics

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections. Sometimes they are an important step in recovering from an illness.

What you may not know is that antibiotics don’t discriminate against the bad guys. One of the negative side effects of taking antibiotics is they harm the good guys too. This leaves your digestive tract vulnerable. Probiotics can help to restore the population of bacteria in your digestive tract.

Often we are sick from viruses like the common cold or influenza. In these cases, antibiotics are not useful to help us get better. If you find that you are often getting sick with viral infections, there is still a role that probiotics might play in restoring your health. Let’s take a look at how your digestive tract is connected to your immune system!

Always Getting Sick

Did you know that 70% of your immune system is in your digestive tract (18)? If you frequently get sick (even from viral infections), this may be a sign that you need probiotics.

Even though the bacteria in your digestive tract are considered “good” - they’re only good if they stay in your digestive tract. Your body has several safety nets in place to make sure that the bacteria don’t travel into your body through the cells of your intestine.

One of these safety nets is immune cells that recognize the good guys. Having a variety of good bacteria in your digestive tract means that your immune system is active and working hard. When you do get exposure to viral infections, your immune system is ready for the challenge.

Having the right type of bacteria also helps to prevent your body from overreacting to infections. Are you familiar with the saying “too much of a good thing is bad?”

If your immune system overreacts, your body will release a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol acts on many different areas of your body and causes inflammation.

Restoring balance to your ecosystem by using probiotics has been shown to help control the immune response in some inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis (8).

Cortisol is also closely linked with mood and emotional stress. Keep reading to find out how probiotics can affect your emotional regulation!

eight brown eggs with different faces drawn on with permanent marker; some are happy, and some are upset.

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Mood Swings

Are you familiar with the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine? They help to regulate mood, sleep, food intake, and pain processing (3). Both of these chemical messengers are produced by the bacteria in your GI tract. Having an imbalance of bacteria means you won’t be producing the right amount of these messengers and that affects your mood.

When you don’t have enough serotonin, your body will release cortisol. Too much cortisol leads to anxiety, depression, mood swings and irritability. This becomes a cycle because stress (from environment or emotions) stimulates more cortisol release, which worsens mood and irritability – yikes!

Recent research has been looking at whether modifying your gut microflora using probiotics can help to improve mood-related symptoms and the results have been promising! Probiotics have been shown to reduce the stress-induced release of cortisol and also to improve anxiety and depression-related behavior (6) - Amazing!

If you want more information on how your digestive health is related to your mood, check out my blog post, Mood Food: Cultivating Mental Health Via Gut Health.

What ties in more closely to mental health than getting a good night’s sleep? Not only is serotonin responsible for regulating mood, but it also plays an important role in regulating our sleep cycle. Let’s discuss how your microbiome can help you get the sleep you need to feel your best.

Difficulty Sleeping

We’ve covered how serotonin can help with your mood, but it is also closely linked to sleep.

Have you heard of tryptophan? It’s an amino acid found in high-protein foods, most famously in turkey. Tryptophan is digested by our intestinal bacteria to make serotonin. Serotonin is then used to make melatonin.

Melatonin is a hormone that your brain produces in response to darkness and it helps to control your circadian rhythm - or your sleep/wake cycle (14). I have more information on sleep in my article: Do Pistachios Help You Sleep? Yes!

Having more of the right kind of bacteria in your digestive tract (remember the good guys?) has been found to increase the amount of serotonin produced from the tryptophan you eat (3). More serotonin equals more melatonin and that means better sleep!

Next, we’ll discuss the connection between your body weight and your digestive health. Let’s dive in!

Weight Gain

Did you know that obesity is an inflammatory condition? Remember the role of your intestinal microbiota in controlling inflammation? That means that even obesity and weight gain can be signs that you may need a probiotic supplement.

Research has looked at the relationship between the type of bacteria found in the digestive tract of overweight and normal-weight study participants. Overweight individuals had more bacteria from the Firmicutes family and fewer bacteria from the Bacteroides family than the non-obese participants (8).

The imbalance of bacteria leads to obese individuals releasing more energy from food and having a tendency to store more energy as fat. That means that overweight individuals with the wrong type of bacteria may eat less food than normal-weight individuals but still struggle to lose the weight (8).

Overweight individuals are at greater risk for having metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome describes conditions that occur together and increase your risk for heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes (15). Having an imbalance of bacteria leads to elevated cortisol which contributes to metabolic syndrome (4).

There are a number of factors that contribute to obesity. If you have been struggling to manage your weight, this might be a sign that you have an imbalance of bacteria. Probiotics could be a useful tool to help you on your journey to optimal health.

As a digestive health dietitian, I love connecting the dots between your digestive health and your whole body! In the next section, we’re going to look at the role of probiotics on your skin.

Rose quartz facial roller, essential oils, and other skincare tools on a white background.

Skin Conditions

If you have skin conditions like acne, I’m sure you thought you’d tried EVERYTHING to improve it. But have you tried probiotics? Most people don’t realize that your gut health is even linked to your skin health.

Your digestive tract isn’t the only place where bacteria live in your body. Your skin is also an important part of your microbiome. Recent research has been looking at the connection between the bacteria in your GI tract and the bacteria that live on your skin (14).

One way that probiotics can help your skin is through your immune system. Remember how probiotics are important in regulating your immune response? Probiotics help to prevent your immune system from overreacting and causing inflammation. Research has been looking at the role of probiotics in helping with inflammatory skin conditions including (14):

  • Acne

  • Atopic dermatitis

  • Rosacea

Probiotics also help to improve your skin barrier and prevent dry irritated skin. If you are using acne treatments that cause dry skin, probiotics have been shown to increase compliance by improving this side effect (14).

Probiotics are also used as a topical treatment for acne. The good bacteria in the probiotics compete with the acne-causing bacteria. The good bacteria also produce compounds that prevent the acne-producing bacteria from surviving (14).

If you are taking antibiotics to treat acne, probiotics will help to restore your microbiome and prevent an imbalance in your body, including yeast infections (14). Yeast infections are another sign that you might benefit from probiotics.

Yeast Infections

Remember that ecosystem we were talking about? Your microbiome naturally includes yeast, but just like the bad bacteria, when you have too much yeast (also called fungus) your ecosystem is not balanced. Yeast infections include:

  • Oral thrush

  • Vaginal yeast infections

  • Yeast infections on the skin

It’s common to get yeast infections while taking antibiotics because your body will have fewer bacteria (good and bad) giving other organisms - like yeast - the opportunity to grow and thrive.

Research shows that probiotics can help to stop the yeast from growing (17) and can be used to treat some yeast infections like thrush (16).

Key Takeaways

There is a role for probiotics to help with more than just digestive issues!

Your GI tract is linked to your brain and immune system and this means that your digestive health can affect your mood, skin, sleep, and risk of developing chronic diseases like metabolic syndrome.

Your path to recovery will likely involve more than just taking a probiotic supplement. With any ecosystem, you have to look at the whole picture. If you fertilize a plant but do not give it water - it will still not grow. BUT with the right environment including water, sun, AND fertilizer, your plant will do more than grow - it will thrive!

If you think you might benefit from adding probiotics to your diet, I am ready to help! I can order specialized lab tests to get to the root cause of your inflammation and digestive issues. I can help you choose the right type of probiotics for your body and together we can make a plan to get you feeling better. Get started with an initial visit with me and let’s talk!


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