Most of these bacteria—known as probiotics—play positive roles in digesting food and fighting off illnesses, and a healthy person has billions if not trillions of them in their digestive tract.
When the balance of “good” v. “bad” bacteria gets out of whack, however, digestive disorders occur. Getting a daily dose of probiotics—through foods or supplements—can help you maintain a healthy mix.
Probiotics are especially useful when taking antibiotics, since those drugs tend to destroy the good bacteria along with the ones making you sick. A decrease in beneficial bacteria can also lead to other infections.
“For example, if your gut doesn’t have enough ‘friendly’ protective bacteria, what I call ‘good bugs,’ then dangerous yeasts, molds, fungi, chemicals, and bacteria can take over,” writes Suzy Cohen, RPh, author of The 24-Hour Pharmacist. “Without healthy flora, you don’t absorb nutrients and medications as well either.”
Probiotics have been studied extensively in recent years, and the results are encouraging. They’ve shown promise in treating diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and intestinal infections, preventing vaginal yeast infections and urinary tract infections, reducing the recurrence of bladder cancer, preventing and treating inflammation after colon surgery, and decreasing the risk of kidney stones. A 2021 study found that taking Lactobacillus probiotics during pregnancy appears to reduce symptoms of nausea and vomiting.
A randomized, controlled trial of adults with tendencies toward obesity shows that the probiotic lactobacillus gasseri helps lower abdominal adiposity and body weight, suggesting a beneficial influence on metabolic disorders.
When your gut cries out for help, it sounds like this: gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, cramps, reflux, or heartburn,” says Cohen. She advises buying products that contain lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium, among others.
Probiotic supplements are available in capsules, tablets, liquids, and powders.
Effective levels range widely, according to the California Dairy Research Foundation, which maintains the website www.usprobiotics.org. “The important thing to know is that different probiotics have been shown to be effective at different levels, and a product containing a higher number of live probiotics may not be better than one with less,” according to the website. "Choose a probiotic that is made by a reputable company, that has been tested for the effects that you are interested in, that is in a format that is appealing to you, and that you find works for you.”
The products should be protected from heat, moisture, and air to prevent spoiling. In addition to supplements, you can get a dose of probiotics by eating cultured milk products such as yogurt and kefir. The product must contain live, active cultures, so be sure to check the label.
What to Look For
Probiotic product labels should include this information:
- identification of the genus, species, and strain of each probiotic in the product
- assurance that the product will contain the stated level of each strain through the end of the product’s shelf life
- the health benefits associated with the product, including citations for published human studies or specific strains
- the company’s contact information and website
- proper storage conditions
- recommended usage based on the level shown to be effective in the published studies.