Though the term ‘probiotics’ is quite popular in the health world, it likewise floats around ambiguously and often sparks curiosities on what they actually are.
You might even be wondering “What are probiotics for?” “Why are probiotics good for you?” and “Should I take a probiotic?” Opportunely, we are clarifying your questions regarding the potential risks and benefits of taking probiotics, what to look for in probiotic supplements, and whether or not you should take them yourself.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are good, live microorganisms shown to keep the gut healthy and balance the microbiome, which encompasses trillions of microorganisms living in the body.
Probiotics are predominantly found in fermented foods and beverages and often indicated as the strains Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Saccharomyces. Some of the most well-known and consumed sources of probiotics include:
- Soft cheeses
- Sourdough bread
- Sour pickles
In addition to obtaining probiotics from food, they can be taken as a supplement in tablet, liquid, and powder forms. Supplements can often be ordered online or found in health food, grocery, and drug stores.
Probiotics should also not be confused with prebiotics, which are indigestible carbohydrate and fiber foods sourced by asparagus, bananas, oatmeal, legumes, and other plant sources. Prebiotics feed probiotics so they can flourish and benefit the body.
What do probiotics do?
Though the mechanisms in which probiotics function are still under ongoing investigation, the benefits of taking probiotics are mostly linked to gut health. Probiotics may improve the following digestive conditions in both children and adults:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Acute and infectious diarrhea
- Diarrhea induced by antibiotics
- Lactose intolerance
There is also some research showing probiotics support health beyond the digestive tract. For example, probiotics may be useful for:
- Lowering LDL cholesterol and high blood pressure
- Weight loss
- Treating allergies
- Skin conditions such as eczema
- Mental health
- Protecting from foodborne illnesses
- Urinary and vaginal health
- Preventing colds and infections
- Oral health
- Reducing inflammation
- Overall health
Who should take probiotics (and who should not)?
In general, healthy people often do need to take a supplement to improve their gut health. However, there are circumstances that can disrupt a healthy digestive tract, including a poor diet, physical inactivity, excessive alcohol intake, and smoking.
Certain health conditions affecting the digestive tract also warrant taking a probiotic, especially the ones indicated above such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Individuals taking an antibiotic may be recommended to one.
Antibiotics treat and prevent from bacterial infections by killing off harmful bacteria in the body. However, antibiotics cannot differentiate good versus bad bacteria in the body, thus killing off both. Taking a probiotic may replenish the good bacteria.
But there also instances in which taking a probiotic can be harmful. People who are immunocompromised or take an immunosuppressant are often advised to not take a probiotic. This may include those living with HIV, who are critically ill, or recently out of surgery. There are also special precautions for children and pregnant and lactating women.
What probiotics should I take?
If advised or permitted to take a probiotic, ask for the assistance of a doctor regarding which probiotic might be best for you. Baring in mind the guidance from your doctor, here is also what you should look for when choosing a probiotic supplement:
Good brands should disclose the exact strain of microorganisms and the amount contained, which is indicated as colony forming units (CFUs). Generally, the higher the CFUs (at least in the billions), the greater the benefits. If the probiotic is blended with various microorganisms, try finding a product that lists the CFU for each specific strain.
It is important to find a product you can rely on and trust, even if it means forking out a little extra money. Researching the brand can help validate the quality and value of the brand, including evidence-based studies that back their claims. Likewise check to see if a third-party company, including USP or ConsumerLab, tested the product. Your doctor can also assist in finding a reputable product.
Find a product with a designated expiration date. This helps determine the likelihood that your probiotics remain alive for their indicated duration. What’s more, the amount of CFUs may decline as the product ages.
Remember, probiotics are live microorganisms and should be stored in a refrigerated, low-moisture environment unless freeze dried or specifically indicated otherwise. That being said, make sure the retailer has likewise kept the probiotics under such conditions to ensure a safe, effective product.
Be aware of any added ingredients to the probiotic. This is especially important if allergic to some common additives, including dairy or soy.
It is important to recognize supplements are sold as dietary supplements, and therefore are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Probiotics also come in varying doses with each supplement coming with its own set of instructions.
That being said, always read the label on the probiotic closely before taking, follow the directions deliberately, and store as indicated to preserve its lifespan.
So, should you be taking probiotics?
While research is still emerging, probiotics appear to provide beneficial effects for a number of different conditions and may also improve overall health and quality of life. There is often no harm in taking a probiotic supplement beyond potential unpleasant side effects, including abdominal cramps, bloating, and gas.
But if you are a generally healthy person, you can likely ensure a healthy gut by consuming probiotic-rich foods, ensuring adequate fiber, drinking sufficient water, exercising regularly, managing stress, and adopting an overall healthy lifestyle.
Ultimately, though, always do your research before taking any sort of supplement and advise with a healthcare provider for additional assistance.