When you think “bacteria,” you probably think of infections like strep throat, tuberculosis, and pneumonia. But that bad reputation is mostly unearned: Less than 1% of bacteria types make people sick.
In fact, one type of bacteria is actually essential for your gut health—probiotics. But what are probiotics exactly, and why do you need them? We saved you the research and dug up the answers.
Probiotics are good bacteria and yeasts that live in your body. You’re probably more familiar with bad bacteria—the kind that makes you sick. You can think of them as tiny supervillains wreaking havoc in your body. Good bacteria are the superheroes that fight those villains, which helps keep your digestive and immune systems healthy.
Not every good bacteria can be called a probiotic, though. To earn that title, they have to be able to survive inside the intestines and outside the body, and there has to be clinical evidence that they’re beneficial to humans.
Scientists are still researching all of the potential benefits of probiotics, but studies going back to the 1990s suggest they may be helpful for many different conditions, including eczema, gum disease, urinary tract infections, yeast infections, and even the common cold.
But you’ve probably heard more about what probiotics can do for your gut health, and with good reason—probiotics are beneficial for a variety of digestive conditions, including Crohn's disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), lactose intolerance, and ulcerative colitis. Specifically, probiotics are great for cutting down on diarrhea and constipation, and can even help treat ulcers.
“I often recommend probiotics for my patients with dyspepsia and irritable bowel syndrome,” says gastroenterologist Dr. Jason Reich.
“While there might not be resounding evidence for their use, some patients seem to have a significant response to probiotics. Reassuringly, there’s little data to suggest a harmful effect from probiotics, and specific probiotics can even cause remission of some gastrointestinal conditions, such as mild or moderate ulcerative colitis.”
If you’re dealing with any of the digestive issues we just mentioned, you’re probably wondering where you can get your hands on some probiotics. Luckily, these helpful microorganisms are found in plenty of foods, especially fermented ones. Here are some of the things you should throw into your cart if you’re looking to add more probiotics to your diet:
Don’t just load up on yogurt and skip the rest of the aisles, though. It won’t do you much good to relieve your digestive symptoms just for another issue to take its place, and that’s exactly what might happen if you throw your diet off balance. Remember, the goal is to maintain your overall health, and that’s always going to require a healthy, varied diet.
If fermented foods just aren’t your thing, you can always try a probiotic supplement. Keep in mind, though, that you don’t necessarily need these supplements to stay healthy—your body already contains good bacteria from the food you eat and other sources.
That said, if you’re struggling with gastrointestinal issues like constipation or diarrhea, you might need more probiotics in your gut than your current diet can provide.
But that doesn’t mean you should just buy anything with the word “probiotic” on it. Probiotics can help relieve many different kinds of ailments, from infections to cavities, and your new supplement won’t do your gut much good if it’s intended to treat a different problem.
To make sure a supplement can benefit your gut health, look for Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, or Saccharomyces boulardii (specific strains of bacteria and yeast) on the label.
In addition to the different strains, probiotics also come in a variety of forms, including capsules, liquids, pills, and powders. Which form and strain are best for you will vary depending on your specific health needs, so be sure to have a chat with your doctor before adding any new supplements to your routine (especially if you’re pregnant, breast-feeding, or taking any prescription medications).
While probiotics are good for you, that doesn’t mean that every supplement you see on the market is safe to take. Because probiotics aren’t medications, they’re not subject to FDA review or approval, so you’ll need to do your own research to find out if a given supplement has been independently tested for safety and efficacy.
That said, probiotics generally have very few side effects unless you accidentally take one you’re allergic to. It’s common to experience some bloating, diarrhea, gas, or stomach pain in the first few days after you start taking a probiotic, but these issues typically go away once your body adjusts.
Don’t take probiotics if your immune system is compromised (like by an illness, chemotherapy, or major surgery) because they can cause infections in rare cases.
To sum all this up, probiotics are a natural force for good in your body, but especially your gut. While taking supplements can help relieve many different gastrointestinal symptoms, make sure to talk it over with your doctor before trying anything.
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The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.