Probiotics, or “good” bacteria, have gained an increasing level of attention in recent years. But do they actually make you healthier? We spoke with the experts to find out.
Microorganisms are among us. Or, more specifically, they’re in us. The human body is a veritable breeding ground for all sorts of microscopic creatures. And while some, such as bacteria, can do bad stuff like cause infections and inflammation, there are also a number of “good” microorganisms that perform valuable work within the body. These include tasks such as aiding digestion, as well as simply keeping the balance of “good” versus “bad” bacteria at the proper ratio.
These good organisms are known as probiotics. And though they exist naturally in the body, they’ve increasingly gained attention in recent years for their potential medicinal value. Many probiotics can be found in foods, while others can be taken as dietary supplements.
“The expansion of choices at the yogurt shelf is an indicator of the popularity of foods containing probiotics,” says Sheah Rarback MS, RDN, director of the Nutrition Division for the Mailman Center for Child Development. “But all yogurts are not equal when it comes to probiotic content, and some might have a surprising amount of sugar. Consumers need to do their yogurt homework.”
How Probiotics Seem to Help
In their natural state, probiotics populate the body’s intestines and aid in digestion. So it makes sense that most of the interest in probiotics stems from their ability to help with digestive problems. Some medical research, for example, indicates that probiotics can help people with irritable bowel syndrome or diarrhea. Intestinal infections are another area where probiotics can provide relief.
Other recent studies show that the value of probiotics may extend beyond the digestive tract. They appear to aid some with allergic conditions such as hay fever and eczema, for example. Additional research has shown that colds and flus may be relieved or prevented with probiotic use.
Currently, evidence suggests there is a role for probiotics in several gastrointestinal diseases, including in patients who develop “pouchitis,” a disease that can occur in ulcerative colitis patients after removal of their colon, says Dr. Oriana Damas, an expert in gastroenterology at the University of Miami Health System. Fecal matter transplantation – the ultimate probiotic – is highly efficacious in restoring the normal flora of patients who develop clostridium difficile infections.
However, Dr. Damas says, there is still more to learn about the microbiome, the body’s collection of bacteria. “We have just begun to scratch the surface. It may be that this one-size-fits-all approach to probiotics may not be the right strategy and it is perhaps the reason why probiotics do not work on everybody. In the future, we foresee personalized probiotic treatments based on an individual’s microbiome.”
What to Take (And How to Take It)
While probiotics show some promise, it’s important to approach the category with caution. Dietary supplements don’t face the same strict guidelines as medications, so some probiotic options may not be all they’re cracked up to be. To help you track down the effective ones, we turned to the experts for advice:
- Probiotics in foods. A number of probiotics are found in common foods. Yogurt, for example, contains the probiotic Lactobacillus acidophilus. Kim chi, sauerkraut, and some pickles, juices, and cheeses also contain probiotics. Ingesting probiotics through foods is very safe and may lend support for digestive issues.
- Probiotics in supplements. According to a 2014 review article in the journal Pharmaceuticals, a number of probiotics have shown benefit when taken as medicine. Lactobacillus reuteri and Saccharomyces boulardii, for example, both seem to help with childhood diarrhea. A probiotic known as VSL#3 has helped people with ulcerative colitis. And Bifidobacterium infantis seems to provide relief from irritable bowel syndrome. However, it’s best to consult with a physician if you’re interested in taking probiotics medically or in supplement form. They can provide the right recommendation and steer you toward trustworthy, reliable products.