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9 Health Benefits of Probiotics That Don’t Have to Do With Digestion

You may know that "good" bacteria can help soothe digestive ills, but probiotics may also reduce anxiety, help your teeth, and have other health benefits.

Do I really need to take probiotics?

Not all probiotics are the same. In fact, there are plenty of different strains, and some may have different potential health benefits than others. Probiotics aren't a cure-all. However, here are some reasons to consider adding some to your diet, either in food or supplement form.

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A healthier heart

What exactly are probiotics? Well these gut-friendly products contain beneficial bacteria and include yogurt, fermented foods, aged cheeses, and supplements. A 2017 review of 15 studies published in PLoS One found that taking the probiotic Lactobacillus could reduce LDL or "bad" cholesterol. 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 the bacteria utilize cholesterol as they grow in the gut. "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.

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Less anxiety

Good bacteria may be among the most trusted home remedies for natural anxiety relief. In a meta-analysis of 10 controlled trials published in Neuropsychiatry, researchers found that probiotics decrease the symptoms of anxiety and stress in people with anxiety compared with control groups. "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.

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Healthier teeth

A 2017 review of research on probiotics and oral health suggested they could be beneficial for maintaining oral health, but more research is necessary to find the dosage and specific bacterial strains that work. Some prior research has 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. Other research from the American Society of Microbiology has found that good bacteria help neutralize enamel-destroying acid in your mouth.

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Fewer colds and coughs

Yogurt (or the probiotics it contains) is one of the immunity-boosting foods that may help fight off colds and flu. 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 create an acidic environment that's inhospitable to harmful bacteria. In addition, good bacteria can have a major impact on the lymphatic system, 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.

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Reducing allergies and eczema

The 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 2017 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found 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.

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Preventing vaginal infections

As many as 30% of women may experience an infection called bacterial vaginosis (BV) at some point in their lives and they may not even know it. Bacterial vaginosis happens when the vagina's special mix of healthy bacteria is 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." 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.

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Combating the effects of antibiotics

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 review found that using probiotics helped reduce the risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhea by 51 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."

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Weight loss

One side effect of probiotics may be weight loss. A 2017 systematic review found that both overweight and obese patients had a reduction in body fat while using various strains of probiotics. Although Zuckerbrot says more research is needed to prove efficacy, another 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. Find out how to pick the best probiotic for weight loss.

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Battling cancer

Among 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 2016 review in Genes & Diseases 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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