Should You Take a Probiotic?

Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD
by Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD
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Should You Take a Probiotic?

You may have heard that you should add a probiotic to your routine. If you thought, “Great, now what’s a probiotic?” Keep reading.

What are probiotics?

Simply put, probiotics are good bacteria that help us absorb nutrients and fight off bad bugs in the gut that may lead to disease. Though known for healthy digestion, probiotic benefits extend well beyond the gut. Recent research reveals that gut health may impact immune health, play a role in obesity and chronic disease prevention and even influence mood.

The many benefits depend on the type of bacteria. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are two of the most studied bacterial strains. Among its many effects, Lactobacillus has been shown to provide relief from diarrhea, especially in children, and may provide hay fever relief for those with seasonal allergies, according to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. Bifidobacterium may help with a number of ailments including irritable bowel syndrome and even respiratory infections in kids.

The evidence is mounting, but the science is still young. What we do know is that certain foods nourish the gut and positively impact gut bacteria. There is also a wide range of supplement options, so you might say that probiotics come in several forms and “flavors.”

Eating for a healthier gut

What you eat has a profound effect on gut bacteria. The goal is to edge out the bad bacteria with the good. Beneficial bacteria are naturally present in a variety of foods. Though yogurt is usually top of mind, kefir is another probiotic source that’s easy to find and perfect in a morning smoothie or overnight oats. Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso and tempeh are other sources that happen to be vegan. In addition to eating these foods regularly, it’s important to eat plenty of fiber from fruits and vegetables to feed the healthy bacteria.

The jury is still out on just how much you need, and in many cases it’s hard to say exactly how much of any particular probiotic you’ll get from food. But if you’re not eating fermented foods regularly, it may be time to reconsider. Enjoy yogurt as a snack, consider topping a stir-fry with kimchi or sip a cup of miso soup with dinner.

Supplementing

Probiotic supplements are the other option. Supplements are particularly helpful in the case of sudden tummy troubles.

The probiotics aisle can be overwhelming. With rows of options, from probiotic shots to capsules and powders to elixirs touting billions of live cultures, how do you choose? With the lure of a healthy and happy gut, it’s easy to succumb to analysis paralysis. Here are a few tips that may help.

When considering a supplement:

Stick with reputable sources. Though not all quality probiotics will have it, look for certifications from independent testing labs like the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention or NSF, which offer a vote of confidence that you’ll get what you pay for.

Choose a supplement that’s enteric-coated, or take it with food. Doing this helps the live cultures survive the acidic environment of the stomach to get to intestines, where the real work begins.

Don’t assume price equals quality. Supplements will vary from expensive to inexpensive and high quality to poor quality.

Adopt a source you can maintain. Over-the-counter or supermarket solutions may be a good fit, but some cases may call for medical-grade probiotics.

Choose a probiotic for your specific needs. Different bacterial strains deliver different results.

  • Problems with constipation? Look for Bifidobacterium, as it may help increase how often you “go.”
  • Looking to lower your high cholesterol? Certain Lactobacillus strains have been shown to reduce total cholesterol as much as 9–14%, according to studies.
  • Traveling and want to escape Montezuma’s revenge? Consider a supplement that combines Bifidobacterium with Lactobacillus acidophilus or Streptococcus thermophilus, since these combinations seem to decrease the chance you’ll get traveler’s diarrhea.

So, you get the picture that no one pill, powder or drink will cure all. Speak with your healthcare provider and do a little research to see which one is the best fit. In any case, be consistent. Your gut is always changing. Include probiotics regularly to keep your gut bacteria happy, healthy and thriving.

About the Author

Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD
Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD

Marisa is an Atlanta-based registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in food and nutrition communications. Using a food-first, mostly plant-based approach, Marisa helps people eat better one morsel at a time. A trusted food and nutrition expert, Marisa has appeared in major media outlets including the CNN, Today Show, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and more. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter and get her recipes and nutrition tips at marisamoore.com.

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