It’s Time to Get the Facts Straight About Probiotics

Offering proven benefits, probiotics have been all the rage. But just as you would with any holistic notion that is suddenly trending on Instagram, you want to make sure you get the facts straight from doctors and nutritionists before stopping by your local pharmacy.

What is a probiotic?

RomarioIen/ShutterstockFound in all sorts of foods and also available in pill packs, probiotics aren't you're typical supplement like a vitamin or mineral: They're bacteria. Before you wrinkle your nose at that, remember they're the "good" bacteria that can help keep the bacteria population your body in balance. Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when present in adequate amounts, may offer health benefits, says Tsippora Shainhouse, MD. "Some benefits of probiotics are that they may be able to help prevent and even treat some infections and illnesses and promote healthy digestion and perhaps, a healthy immune system," she explains.

Why are there so many different types of probiotics?

Trong-Nguyen/ShutterstockIf you know anything about bacteria, you probably know that you contain a multitude. The bacterial cells in your body outnumber your human cells by about 3 to 1 ratio, technically making you more bug than human. This fact also helps explain why your local pharmacy carries so many varieties of probiotics. Stare too long and you'll likely wind up with a furrowed brow, wondering where you should even begin. Start with the U.S. Probiotic Guide to get a thorough look at the tons of different types of probiotics, advises Keith Ayoob, MD. It lists the hundreds of different bacteria cultures, capsules and varieties that are available.

What can probiotics do?

NATTHAPONG-SUNTORNDECH/ShutterstockPrimarily known as a remedy for gut ailments, probiotics gained their reputation by helping people tame the diarrhea that follows a course of antibiotics or a trip to a country with sketchy water. There's also interesting research suggesting that probiotics can tame irritable bowel syndrome and other chronic digestive issues, skin problems like eczema, and urinary and vaginal health problems; they may even promote healthy teeth and gums.

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Who should take a probiotic?

Katarzyna-Wojtasik/ShutterstockThe long and the short answer: Everyone, at any age, depending on what's going on in their lives or body. Even when you're feeling at the top of your game, it can be beneficial to take a probiotic, especially if you struggle with any of the things probiotics can help with. People on a special diet, like being gluten-free, can mean you're missing out on some of the microorganisms—such as yeast—your gut craves, says Svetlana Kogan, M.D. and author of Diet Slave No More!. It's important to have a conversation with your doctor about your goals while taking a probiotic, says Dr. Kogan, since most experts believe you shouldn't be on them forever. "I recommend them only as a temporary intervention, together with healthy diet and lifestyle changes," she explains. "This leads to a permanent healthy outcome, at which point the patient does not need to take anything anymore," she explains. One time you should absolutely take probiotics? After an illness. Find out the benefits of probiotics after antibiotics.

You can get probiotic benefits from food

puhhha/ShutterstockPeople who don't regularly struggle with gut issues can still benefit from probiotics—and you don't have to take a pill. Do you often find yourself bloating following a meal or know that you have a hard time digesting certain foods? Before you decide to invest in a daily probiotic, consider adding probiotic-filled foods into your diet, Dr. Ayoob says. "Start with yogurt and kefir, which have live and active cultures, are minimally processed, and can be included in most diets" he says. "I also encourage people to eat more pre-biotic foods, which have different types of dietary fiber that feed the good bacteria in your body." What does he recommend? "Some fantastic sources are onions, garlic, all fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes."

If you're buying pills, read the label

Stokkete/ShutterstockJust like you check food labels to avoid certain ingredients (looking at you, high-fructose corn syrup!), pay attention to what is in your probiotic to ensure you make a healthy choice. "Look for a reputable manufacturer with many different strains of probiotics represented, and a strong potency (around 40-50 CFUs) if you are taking it because of antibiotic treatment," Dr. Kogan says. There is no FDA regulation of supplements, she warns. However, consumerlab.com tests all supplements and publishes their results online, making it simple for you to get info on the effectiveness of a probiotic. It's also smart to check with your doctor before adding anything new to your diet, not only for her opinion based on your medical history, but for her recommendations, too.

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Be patient

frankie's/ShutterstockProbiotics aren't supercharged pharmaceuticals, and restoring a healthy balance to your body will take time. If you're suffering from IBS conditions or just not regularly visiting the restroom, taking one probiotic isn't going to work magic overnight. "This is a process, so things may take weeks to produce a benefit. The gut environment cannot change overnight," Dr. Ayoob says. "You want to grow more good bacteria, but the idea is to help your gut do what it is made to do, grow its own good environment."

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