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Probiotics: Health Hype or Everyday Essential?

December 30, 2021

Many people don’t realize it, but there are billions of yeasts and bacteria – both good and bad – living in our bodies. Increasingly, we’re learning more about the key role these colonies play in keeping us healthy and performing at our best. 

We often think of bacteria as something that’s bad for us. But in this case, good bacteria (or probiotics) maintain a balance and fight to keep bad bacteria under control when you get sick. And they may even play a role in protecting your mental health. 

It’s likely that you’ve seen probiotics mentioned in advertisements and product packaging or heard friends talking about them. But does taking a probiotic supplement really help gut health? Understanding these microorganisms, along with how to safely incorporate them into your diet or supplement regimen, can help you and your doctor decide if they’re right for you. 

What Are Probiotics?

Collectively, this community of microorganisms living in your digestive tract are referred to as the microbiome. We’re still learning about the important role they play in overall human health, with recent studies linking gastrointestinal (GI) issues and microbiome imbalance to chronic diseases and even mental health disorders

You have billions of these bacteria and yeast in your gut. Composition varies from person to person, making each microbiome as unique as a fingerprint. They assist with a range of jobs, including: 

●       Maintaining health ratios of beneficial and harmful microorganisms 

●       Restoring balance after a disturbance (like an illness) 

●       Aiding in digestion 

When we introduce “good” bacteria into the gut in the form of probiotics, we're attempting to level the playing field by normalizing the microbiome and bringing balance to our bodies. 

Dietary Sources of Probiotics

Probiotics can be found in fermented foods, produced through controlled microbial growth and the use of yeast and other bacteria to break down sugars and other components into organic acids, gases and alcohol. (This is the process that gives these foods their taste and aroma.) There are thousands of different types of fermented foods, many of which can be found at your local supermarket. Among those offering a probiotic boost to your gut: 

●       Yogurt and kefir (liquid yogurt drink)

●       Sauerkraut

●       Sourdough bread

●       Kimchi

●       Miso

●       Certain aged cheeses (check label for live and active cultures)

●       Tempeh

●       Kombucha

●       Lacto-fermented pickles and other vegetables made with salt brine 

What to Look for in Probiotic Supplements 

Ideally, we would get all the probiotics we need from food. But if you’re dealing with certain health conditions or other circumstances, you may want to consider a supplement. 

Antibiotics, for example, can wipe out beneficial bacteria along with the bacteria causing an infection. So, your doctor or pharmacist might recommend a probiotic supplement to help replenish your gut and prevent antibiotic-induced side effects like diarrhea. Still, there’s not enough evidence to suggest that this approach should be recommended for everyone. Speak with your doctor about whether you would benefit. 

When choosing a probiotic supplement, seek out a reputable brand (or ask your doctor for a recommendation). Steer clear of companies making claims that seem too good to be true, because they probably are. In terms of ingredients, look for the type of bacteria known as Lactobacillus or bifidobacterium, which has been found to be safe and effective for most people. 

Keep in mind that supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so the surest way to know you’re getting probiotics is to consume them in the form of fermented foods. 

It’s also important to note that probiotics aren’t like multivitamins: they’re not meant to be taken by everybody, all the time. If you’re not sure if you should take probiotics, or how to use them, talk to your doctor. 

Some Patients Should Avoid Probiotics

While probiotics may be helpful for certain health issues, there are some people who should avoid them. For example, probiotics can increase infection risk for people who are immunosuppressed because of chemotherapy or a health condition or are hospitalized due to severe illness. 

It’s always a good idea to check with your healthcare provider before taking any supplement for the first time. But you can feel safe enjoying probiotics in the form of healthy and delicious fermented foods any time.

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