Do Probiotics Make You Hungry?
Much research has been undertaken regarding the extent to which probiotics affect levels of appetite. Probiotics can be defined as “live, nonpathogenic microorganisms administered to improve microbial balance”1; therefore, they are tiny living things that help to bring our bodies to equilibrium. They are mainly used in the gastrointestinal tract, suggesting that there could be links to hunger. This article summarizes some of the main themes arising from such studies, aiming ultimately to answer whether or not probiotics make you hungry.
The Role Probiotics Play in Regulating Appetite
Researchers certainly agree that microbiota in the gut is critical in regulating the metabolism of humans and other animals2. Furthermore, it has been seen that probiotics positively impact gut microbiota and produce metabolites2. Probiotics modulate the composition of microbes within the intestinal tract; therefore, they can cause appetite modulators to be released in the same way that nutrients do, telling the body that it is satiated3.
However, some academics have found that the effects of probiotics on appetite are minimal in people who are overweight or obese4. This raises a potential question regarding the advantages of probiotics.
The Benefits of Probiotics
Putting appetite to one side for the moment, numerous studies have suggested various health improvements associated with the use of probiotics. The diseases that can be reduced or even eliminated include, but are not limited to, the following5:
- infections in the intestines;
- colon cancer;
- lactose intolerance;
- gastroenteritis; and
- inflammatory bowel disease.
Therefore, it is clearly demonstrated that probiotics are beneficial for health, but that doesn’t answer the title question. To investigate this further, we need to consider the issue of obesity.
Probiotics and Obesity
It is suggested that probiotics can be used to simulate the microbiota found in the guts of people with a body mass index that is considered to be healthy6. As such microbiota would send messages to the brain to say that it wasn’t hungry - thereby giving the physiological state of satiation - it could be considered that probiotics can reduce levels of obesity.
However, as previously mentioned, not all scholars agree with this. For example, some have shown that while probiotics can positively impact reducing appetite, lifestyle choices far outweigh these benefits, essentially rendering them negligible6.
That being said, it is undoubtedly evident that the gut flora of obese individuals is less diverse than that of non-obese people7. Therefore, using probiotics to promote the diversity of microbiota within the intestines, particularly members of the Bacteroidetes, could help to reduce rates of obesity. Furthermore, such manipulation of gut microbiota has been proven to be successful within animals in the agricultural sector for decades7; thus, manipulation of this nature should be able to be extrapolated to use within humans.
Empirical studies illustrate the effectiveness of probiotics in helping with weight loss. For example, a double-blind, placebo-controlled, wholly randomized study had two groups of subjects, all of whom were classed as being obese: one group took a pill twice a day containing the probiotic Lactobaccilus rhamnosus; the other group took a placebo pill twice a day7.
Significant weight loss was found, after a period of 12 weeks, in the group taking the probiotic, but not in the control group. Moreover, those taking the probiotic for a further 12 weeks were shown to be able to maintain their lower body weight7. Therefore, this particular probiotic (which is commonly used in many probiotic products) can help with weight loss for people who are overweight or obese.
How Probiotics May be Able to Help Control Cravings
As microbes in the digestive system can manipulate the eating behavior of their host in order to heighten their own fitness9, it is definitely possible that they can control cravings. Indeed, it is shown that they can generate cravings in people so that they - the microbes - are given the nutrients they require and that they can cause dysphoria in their host until the host eats the food that the microbes want9. Dysphoria is a mental imbalance that is linked to mental health conditions such as depression10.
Gut flora can influence pathways related to reward and satiety, as well as being able to ‘hijack’ the vagus nerve, which is the neurological link between the stomach and the brain9. They can also alter various receptors in the body, including those related to taste9. All of this demonstrates the effects that microbiota within the gastrointestinal tract have on people’s eating habits.
Therefore, in consideration of the above factors, if one alters one’s mibrobial diversity through the use of probiotics, it is theoretically possible to change how these microbes impact one’s feelings towards food. Ultimately, this means that probiotics may indeed be able to help control cravings, so long as the appropriate microbes are added to the person’s system.
Probiotics and Mental Health
It has already been mentioned that microbial activity in the gut can lead to dyspnea if the microbes are not getting the food and nutrients that they require9. However, that is not the end of the story of the links to mental health and wellbeing, as probiotics can potentially be used as a cure for certain mental ill-health conditions.
For example, patients with major depressive disorder commonly experience a loss of appetite and, therefore, significant weight loss11. Through empirical research, it has been illustrated that, by taking the right probiotics for a sufficient amount of time (i.e., eight weeks), people with major depressive disorder experience mood alterations in a positive direction and begin to put on weight as their appetite improves11.
Other studies have shown the positive impacts of probiotics on mental health. One scientific research project, for instance, investigated “the effects of probiotics on mental health and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis”; this was undertaken under double-blind, totally randomized conditions12.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is the body’s system responsible for responding to stresses of any kind13; thus, if probiotics were found to enhance this system and thereby reduce stress on the subjects, it would prove how such intervention can benefit mental health.
This was actually what the findings suggested, as accepted mental health parameters (general health questionnaire; depression, anxiety, and stress scale) showed significant improvements in groups using the probiotics13.
Probiotics are used to alter the microbiota within somebody’s intestinal tract. The microbiota can, at least to some extent, control cravings and appetite within their host. Therefore, the use of probiotics can change both the amount of food that someone wants to consume, and which types of food they choose to eat. As well as that, they can be used for the reduction or elimination of various illnesses.
While such diseases are primarily those associated with digestive organs, conditions such as obesity and depression have been shown to have been successfully treated through the use of the right probiotics.
Thus, in answer to the title question (“Do probiotics make you hungry?”), the answer is as follows. Yes, probiotics can make you hungry, but they don’t always. It depends on which microbiota are already present in your gut and which probiotics you are taking. You should consider which probiotics you are taking and what you are hoping to achieve.
Furthermore, you should always seek medical advice if you are planning on taking probiotics over the long-term as it will affect you, in one way or another. Do you want them to make you hungry so that you can gain weight? Or do you want the opposite of that? Alternatively, is it that you have stomach pain or are suffering from depression or anxiety? Whatever the reason, there is likely to be a probiotic that can help with combatting - although probably not totally cure - what you are suffering from.
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