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Probiotic and Prebiotic Supplements: Do They Work – and Are They Safe?

Touted as a way to combat the effects of a poor diet and stress, prebiotics and probiotics are the latest buzzwords when talking about a healthy gut, or your microbiome. You get these microorganisms in many of the foods you eat, but more and more people are turning to supplements.

Do you get the same benefit from supplements – and are they safe?

What Are Probiotics and Prebiotics?

The human gut has 100 trillion of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses and fungi, which is 10 times more than the total number of cells of the human body. These microorganisms start colonizing our digestive tract from the moment we are born and together they are called the microbiome.

The gut microbiome plays a major role in the fine balance between health and sickness, providing vital functions by protecting against bad bacteria, assisting in the intake of nutrients and fat from food, as well as regulating your bowel movement and immune system function.

You add to these beneficial microbes mostly through the foods you eat and, more recently, though the supplements you could take.

Probiotics, found in foods or supplements, help your body maintain the balance between good and bad bacteria in the digestive tract. They also can help it return to normal after the bacteria have been affected by an illness or medication. Prebiotics are foods or supplements that feed the good bacteria and stimulate growth. Newer products on the market called synbiotics combine probiotics and prebiotics.

Probiotics and Prebiotics in Foods

The best way to help your body microbiome is by eating a healthy, well-balanced diet and avoiding processed foods.

Foods rich in probiotics include:

  • Yogurt and acidified milks
  • Kefir
  • Kombucha
  • Sauerkraut
  • Dark Chocolate
  • Kimchi
  • Natto
  • Tempeh
  • Pickles
  • Olives
  • Raw Cheese
  • Miso

Foods that are rich in prebiotics include:

  • Oatmeal
  • Sugar beet
  • Asparagus
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Seaweed
  • Corn
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Peas

Benefits of Probiotic and Prebiotic Supplements

Probiotics are speculated to help in the treatment of a variety of health conditions, including:

  • Diarrhea (caused by antibiotics and intestinal infection)
  • Constipation
  • Pouchitis
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Yeast infections
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Gum disease
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Eczema
  • Upper respiratory infections (ear infections, common cold, sinusitis)

However, there aren’t enough consistent studies to support using these supplements to treat these diseases. Also, not all probiotics contain the same combination and concentrations of favorable microorganisms, and not all probiotic supplements can treat every condition.

Are Probiotic and Prebiotic Supplements Safe?

Because probiotics and prebiotics supplements are not considered drugs in the United States, they do not require approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In 2020, the American Gastroenterological Association released a guideline on the role of probiotics supplements in the management of gastrointestinal disorders. Experts found there is no strong scientific evidence to support the therapeutic use of probiotic supplements, except in a handful of conditions, including when taking antibiotics.

Although most probiotic and prebiotic supplements are well-tolerated in healthy people,

you should always consult with your doctor before starting any supplements and continue to be monitored while you are taking them.

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