Probiotics 101: Their Benefits, How They Work, & Foods That Contain Them

When your stomach or intestines aren’t healthy, life can be very difficult. Sometimes getting through the day seems impossible. Bloating and distension are terribly uncomfortable. Bowel diseases can be excruciating.

There are plenty of products out there claiming to relieve you of these symptoms, yet they don’t always seem to live up to the hype. There is good news, though.

Over the past 20 years, doctors have done a lot of research on how bacteria called “probiotics” can help restore health in your “gut”, a popular word used for your digestive system.

Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when given in the right amounts, can give you legitimate health benefits, according to the Oxford Journal’s Clinical Infectious Diseases. As you’ll read, there are many studies which point to probiotics’ potential to restore your gut health.

Other bacteria aren’t so beneficial to your gut. They’ve been linked to conditions like inflammatory bowel disease. And bacteria in general are viewed as a bad thing.

Think of bacteria like a big city with a bad reputation. Probiotics are like that cool little neighborhood in the city bringing some life and beauty to an otherwise scary place.

In this guide we’re going to walk you through the basics of probiotics, focusing our time on the common uses of probiotics and the types of foods which contain them. 

Probiotics Can Fight Many Sicknesses & Conditions

Probiotics have been proven to be very helpful for different ailments related to your digestive system and immune system.

Your digestive system is really important for your health. All the good stuff included in your foods (vitamins, etc.) get absorbed into your body via your digestive system. You tend to miss out on the health benefits of some of the foods you are eating if your digestion isn’t working right.

Also, if there’s an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in your gut, you can suffer from bloating, gas and other digestive issues that can make daily life miserable. “Bad” bacteria live in your gut and, under the right circumstances, can trigger adverse health effects.

That’s where probiotics come in – they help balance out the bad bacteria and can, according to many studies, be helpful in a variety of conditions related to your stomach and intestines. We’ll talk about some of those studies in a few seconds.

Before we start, we need to make a quick disclaimer. Remember how we likened probiotics to a cool, thriving neighborhood in the middle of a big, scary city?

Well, as we talk to you about the benefits of probiotics, you’ll come across some hard-to-pronounce bacteria. Think of each of the bacteria we talk about as a house within the probiotics neighborhood; all the houses are in the same neighborhood, but not all the houses are the same.

Now, for the Amazing Benefits of Probiotics:

Axing Antibiotic-Associated Diarrhea (AAD)

Antibiotics kill certain bacteria, and by doing so they can upset the balance of good and bad bacteria in our gut. Diarrhea is a coming side effect of this imbalance.

A Canadian study in 2011 found that a probiotic cocktail helped patients experience a decrease in AAD.

Combatting Constipation

More than 60 million people deal with constipation, the condition in which a person has infrequent bowel movements. We found a 2010 Polish study in which constipated adults found sweet relief after taking probiotics.

Their particular brew of probiotics included Bifidobacterium lactis and Lactobacillus casei Shirota. See, we told you the names were weird!

Bidding Adieu to Certain Allergic Reactions

Doctors from Finland found in 2011 that probiotic bacteria can help children with food allergies and inflammation due to allergies. Total cure? Not quite. But, researchers wrote, the results were real and the research is promising.

Intervening in IBD

A research team from the University of California, San Francisco, confirmed in 2011 that maintaining a healthy gut through consuming probiotics can be an effective therapy/management tool for inflammatory bowel disease, a painful inflammation of the intestinal tract.

Boosting the Immune System

You know how there’s a “father” for just about anything? The father of modern computing. The father of American economics. Well, probiotics has a “father” and his name is Elie Metchnikoff.

Early in the 20th century, Metchnikoff discovered that Bulgarian peasants were remarkably healthy for being so impoverished. The reason? They drank sour milk, which happened to be full of probiotics.

Metchnikoff  later discovered that probiotics were the heroes here, helping strengthen not only the intestines but the immune system too.

Easing Acute Gastroenteritis (AGE) in Kids

AGE is a nasty little bug that causes lots of diarrhea and can lead to dehydration. In 2014, a team of scientists from Europe discovered giving kids probiotic treatments can reduce the intensity and duration of AGE.

The Ultimate Guide to Probiotic Science

If you feel like nerding out on serious amounts of probiotic syllables, check out this chart from the National Institutes of Health. It shows you how probiotics have helped with certain illnesses and conditions. You’ll get all the Entrerococcus, Lactococcus and Escherichia you can handle.

Five products that can give you a powerful probiotic boost

Now that we’ve helped you become somewhat of an expert in probiotics, we want to give you some practical advice on how to get these helpful little organisms into your body. We’ve created a short list of five various products that contain probiotics.

Keep in mind that, while there are plenty of studies which praise probiotics, most experts haven’t come to a conclusion about how much probiotic-friendly foods you should eat.

Katherine Zeratsky, a nutritionist at Mayo Clinic brought up a good point: most adults can add to their diet foods and supplements rich in probiotics without a big risk of side effects. As always, make sure you check with your doctor first.


Kefir is one of those foods you see and don’t think much about because you don’t really know what it is.

Kefir originates in the Caucasus Mountains (Russia, Turkey and that part of the world). It’s made by mixing kefir grains with milk. The result is a tangy liquid that might remind you of drinkable plain yogurt.

This unique sipper has a healthy dose of Saccharomyces, a bacteria with a nice list of victories over diarrhea as well as a reputation for easing the effects of IBD and some symptoms of ulcerative colitis.


Of all the items on this list of probiotic-packed foods, yogurt is probably the most familiar. It’s a popular breakfast food that has benefitted from an increased interest in probiotics.

Yogurts are made from various bacteria, but two of the popular ones are Streptococcus thermophilius and Lactobacilli.


Probiotic supplements are a breath of fresh air for us because there’s tons of science behind the usefulness of probiotics for your digestive system.  

Lactobacillus acidophilus is a frequent ingredient in supplements, and often it’s packaged as a stand-alone supplement called “acidophilus”.

Supplements can contain multiple probiotics, so if you ever want to cross-reference the scientifically proven benefits of an ingredient, use this helpful chart from the National Institutes of Health.

Sour Milk

Do you remember our earlier discussion about Elie Metchnikoff, the Russian zoologist who discovered that Bulgarian peasants unknowingly boosted their immune systems by drinking sour milk?

Well, we don’t recommend searching for sour milk at your local supermarket because you probably won’t find it. However, there are baking recipes which use sour milk as an ingredient and plenty of information online about how to make sour milk.


Kimchee is a staple of Korean cuisine. It’s a fermented, spicy mixture of several different vegetables including cabbage. It’s cult favorite and, because it's fermented, it is full of helpful bacteria.

Most of the bacteria that’s been found in kimchee is of the Lactobacillus kind, which has a long list of benefits for the digestive system.

Is it Time to Add Probiotics to You Diet?

About 70,000,000 Americans deal with digestive issues … that’s a huge number. Finding relief from these issues is a matter of researching solid recommendations from trusted sources, whether a doctor or nutritionist.

From what we’ve seen, the best sources of information agree: probiotics play an important role in your digestion. Thankfully, these helpful bacteria are available in a variety of different foods you can find at your local grocery store.

Yogurt, kefir and supplements are three readily available sources of helpful probiotics. We think there’s enough evidence out there to back up our recommendation: add some probiotics to your diet! Check with your doctor before adding them, even though the risk of side effects is small.

  • December 4, 2015

J.R. Duren

J.R. is an award winning journalist who uncovers the hard truths about personal finance, health and fitness through in-depth research and interviews with experts.


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