Should You Take Probiotics?
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The Evidence In Favor Of Taking Probiotics Isn’t Nearly As Strong As You’d Think
“There’s limited research to back up that eating these foods will help with fighting the infections and improving the symptoms that probiotics claim to be doing,”
Four: That’s how many pounds of probiotics (aka good bacteria, yeast, and mold) you have hanging out in your GI tract right now. Trillions of microbes-strong, these guys are a huge part of your health. According to one review in Microbial Cell Factories, probiotic cells in the gut outnumber human cells 10 to 1.
So what are they doing down there? For one, they are helping your gastrointestinal tract work its best, says Dr. Shawn Khodadadian, M.D., a gastroenterologist with Manhattan Gastroenterology in New York City. They break down and metabolize food, make it easier for your body to absorb some nutrients including iron, and keep fiber-packed beans from making you stink up rooms.
Perhaps even more importantly, they support your immune system. Somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of your body’s immune cells reside in your GI tract, says molecular and cellular biologist Brian Dixon, Ph.D., executive director scientific and clinical affairs at USANA Health Sciences. “Researchers are currently studying whether probiotics can help fight infections, improve diarrhea, prevent allergies, and other ailments,” Khodadadian says.
With all this research and products being brought to market, you’d think the case for taking extra probiotics would be pretty much a slam dunk. But that’s not necessarily the case; the evidence gets much more murky.
The first step to improving your gut’s probiotic power is to eat a balanced diet, one that is both rich in prebiotics — the non-digestible carbohydrates found in whole grains, bananas, onions, garlic, honey, and artichokes that most probiotics love to eat—and probiotics, says dietician nutritionist Tori Holthaus, RDN, LD, founder of YES! Nutrition. You can find probiotics in live-cultured yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, cultured vegetables, she says.
But that isn’t necessarily a guarantee of better health, says Khodadadian. “There’s limited research to back up that eating these foods will help with fighting the infections and improving the symptoms that probiotics claim to be doing,” he says. That may be because many of the probiotics in these foods can potentially die out before they make it all the way from the manufacturer to the supermarket to your plate.
“With yogurts that contain ‘live and active cultures,’ I’d be willing to guarantee that they do contain live and living cultures. But how many are still alive? It probably needs to be quite a bit higher to have much benefit,” Dixon says.
Also no two people have the exact same mix of probiotics living in their gut, Dixon says. Where you live, if your mom breastfed you as a baby, and even if you were born by C-section or vaginally — when you exit the birth canal, you get exposed to a lot of bacteria, courtesy of both the vagina and nearby poop chute — all affect the probiotics to which you have been exposed. However, the biggest determiner of your GI tract’s microbiome is what you eat, he says.
For instance, if you eat a diet rich in fiber, it feeds the fiber-munching microbes in your gut. If you skip the veggies and opt for a steady diet of steaks, they’ll starve to death and meat-munchers might instead thrive, he says.
How To Use Probiotics To Improve Your Health
So what mix do you want? Unfortunately, no one’s entirely sure yet. “The research on probiotics is in its infancy,” says Dixon, who notes that researchers are still just trying to pick out and name all of the strains. “Who is to say which bacteria is fighting which ‘war,’” Khodadadian says.
However, from that research, scientists have noticed that two types of probiotics, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, dominate the human GI microbiome. The assumption: The largest populations have the largest effects on health, Dixon says.
So far, research has suggested that increasing your levels of those two types though supplementation comes with health benefits. Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactoabcillus GG, as well as a mixture of Saccharomyces boulardii, Lactobacillus acidophilus, and Bifidobacterium bifidum may help prevent and treat traveler’s diarrhea, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
So, if you are trying to up your microbiome, taking a probiotic supplement—and one that contains both Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium—may be the way to go. Also, while these supplements are generally considered safe, it’s important to remember that the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the contents contained in probiotic bottles, Dixon says. For that reason, before purchasing any probiotics, it’s best to talk to your doctor about the brands he or she recommends. You can also find evaluations of probiotic supplements on Consumer Lab.