The 500 different species of microorganisms you have living inside your system make a substantial impact on your overall health. There are 100 trillion bacteria inhabiting every normal, healthy bowel—the majority of which are considered “good” or “healthy” bacteria. They keep pathogens in check, aid digestion and nutrient absorption, and contribute to immune function.
But sometimes factors like stress, diet changes, and medications like antibiotics can create an imbalance of bad versus good bacteria in the gut, leading to a host of gastrointestinal issues. With millions of Americans suffering from digestive problems like IBS every day, many are turning to certain foods and supplements containing probiotics to ease their suffering.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are the live bacteria and yeasts that are beneficial for digestive health. Although they’re naturally found in the body, they can also be found in a variety of foods and supplements, which are generally considered safe to try.
Why should I take them?
Probiotics can help aid digestion and many specialists recommend them for disorders like IBS that don’t respond well to other treatments. Clinical studies show that probiotic therapy can help treat various GI problems and treat or prevent vaginal and urinary infections in some (not all) women. And although there is no definitive evidence to support the claims, some experts believe probiotics can be beneficial in delaying the development of allergies.
“Digestive disorders are epidemic,” says One Medical’s Ellen Vora, MD. “A confluence of factors of modern life compromise our population’s digestive health and gut microbiota.” Among those factors, Vora cites everything from antibiotics, chronic stress, processed foods, infections, hormones in foods, pharmaceuticals, and even birth by C-section and being fed formula rather than breast milk. “Being born in a hospital, even if it’s by healthy vaginal delivery, has an effect on a baby’s gut flora. Without healthy gut flora, we’re vulnerable to gut inflammation,” she says.
How can I get probiotics in my diet?
Probiotics are found in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles. Be sure to look for words like “raw,” “lacto-fermented,” or “unpasteurized” on the package, and check for the phrase “live active cultures” on yogurt cartons. These indicate that the product hasn’t been heated after fermentation. Look for foods that contain at least 100 million cultures per gram, which sometimes appears on the label.
What about supplements?
There is also an array of probiotic supplements on the market found in pill, powder, and liquid form. While some experts recommend them for conditions ranging from IBS to eczema, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any specific health claims on probiotics, and the amounts of probiotics that studies has shown to be beneficial have varied depending on the strain and condition being treated.
Will probiotics cure my digestive problems?
Although there is generally no harm in trying probiotic foods or supplements, it’s best to view them as adjuncts to healthy diet and lifestyle choices, not as cure-alls. “Don’t get caught up in the search for the perfect probiotic supplement, or you’ll miss the bigger picture,” says One Medical Group nutritionist Karyn Duggan, CNC. “With every bite of food, you’re choosing which bacteria to feed. Yes, anyone can take a probiotic and may see a marginal improvement, but the key to GI health will never be as simple as popping a pill.”
According to Duggan and Vora, the foundation of digestive health is built on healthy food choices and lifestyle modifications that include stress reduction and relaxation. Duggan says, “It’s not until you make good dietary and lifestyle choices that you’re truly creating a more harmonious environment within your GI system.”