Probiotics Basics

Here is a helpful guide to understanding probiotics.

By Reader's Digest Editors

In recent years probiotics have been getting a lot of hype. They sure sound good for you. But what do they do, exactly, and which ones should you look for?

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are organisms that occur naturally in our bodies that are often added to foods or taken as supplements for a wide range of health benefits. In foods, you’ll often find them in yogurt because some probiotics (such as L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus) are used in the yogurt-making process.

What do they do?

Probiotics help the body counterbalance the negative effects of unhealthy bacteria and replenish its supply of good bacteria (which can be depleted when you take antibiotics). Because they inhibit harmful bacteria, probiotics have been credited with numerous benefits, from easing digestion to improving your complexion to treating yeast infections. Research is even being done on certain probiotics for their potential to treat colon and other cancers.

Which probiotics should you use?

It depends on what ails you. The following are some popular health issues and the specific probiotics that many find helpful in preventing and treating them:

• Diarrhea and other digestive problems caused by antibiotics: S. cerevisiae boulardii, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, and Bacillus coagulans GBI-30

• Urinary tract infections, yeast infections, and bacterial vaginosis: L. rhamnosus GR-1 and L. reuteri RC-14

• Irritable Bowl Syndrome (IBS): Bifidobacterium infantis 35624 and L. plantarum DSM9843

• Eczema: L. rhamnosus HN001 or L. rhamnosus GG

Should you use probiotics if you’re healthy?

Even if you don’t suffer from any of the health problems listed above, you’re still susceptible to colds, sinus infections, and other seasonal ailments. Research has shown that the probiotics L. casei DN-114001, L. rhamnosus GG, and L. acidophilus NCFM actually help shore up your immune system against these illnesses, and that ingesting them preventatively can increase your chance of staying healthy during cold and flu season.

For those traveling to countries where water-borne parasites often cause what’s known as “traveler’s diarrhea,” taking the probiotic S. cerevisiae boulardii beginning a week before departure has been shown to reduce the risk of developing the unpleasant malady, and thus increase the amount of time you spend on the beach rather than in the bathroom.

Should any probiotics be avoided?

Often the companies that develop specific strains of probiotics are also the ones funding the studies that “prove” their health benefits. If you’re unfamiliar with the name of a probiotic, take the time to research where it was developed and what exactly it does (or doesn’t do). Look for the phrase “clinically proven” rather than “clinical studies show.”

Plus: 8 Medical Myths: Which Should You Believe?

Sources: MensHealth.com, Health.com, WebMD.com

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