Lately, especially with the rise of Covid-19, everyone seems to be taking probiotics for one reason or another. But are they actually good for you? Probiotics are almost always given when you’re taking prescribed antibiotics in order to replace the ‘good’ bacteria which is lost during the treatment. However, more and more people are taking probiotic supplements daily in the pursuit of better gut health. But is this a good idea? Should you also be adding probiotics into your daily routine?
What are probiotics?
Let’s revisit the basics. What even is a probiotic? Essentially, they’re the live bacteria and yeasts that are good for the body. We usually think of bacteria as a bad thing but there are actually both good and bad types of bacteria. In fact, it used to be thought that bacteria outnumbered the cells in the body at a 10-to-1 ratio. However, new studies suggest that it is actually more likely a ratio of 1-to-1. This means that, depending on what ratio you believe, you have anywhere from 39–300 trillion bacteria living inside you. Probiotics are helpful bacteria that aid in keeping the gut healthy. They are found in foods like yogurts, not just in supplement form, and are often suggested by doctors when the patient is struggling with gut health or is on antibiotics in order to replace the good bacteria which is lost during treatment.
When it comes to finding probiotics in food, they usually occur in foods that are prepared by bacterial fermentation. Examples of these include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, and kimchi. Probiotics are not to be confused with prebiotics. These are carbohydrates, usually dietary fiber, that help to feed the good bacteria which is already present in the gut. Generally, different types of probiotics address different health conditions. This is why it’s so important to know which type of probiotic is the right one for you if you do want to add a supplement to your diet. Broad-spectrum probiotics or multi-probiotics, combine different species/strains in the same product.
Different types of probiotics
Okay, so there are different types and strains of probiotics, but what does this mean. Essentially, there are many types of bacteria (and yeasts) that are classified as probiotics. However, they all have different benefits. Generally, they come from one of these two groups
Lactobacillus: This is, in general, the most common probiotic. It’s the one that is found in fermented foods such as yogurt and is most helpful in the treatment of diarrhea and other digestive issues.
Bifidobacterium: Difficult to pronounce and found in some dairy products, bifidobacterium is best known for its ability to ease IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
As far as yeast-based probiotics go, Saccharomyces boulardii is the most common and is also best known for its ability to help to fight diarrhea as well as being useful in the treatment of other digestive issues.
Benefits of probiotics
Most of the bacteria, both good and bad, reside in the gut. Mostly, the gut is full of bacteria that are either good or harmless. Having the right kind of bacteria in the gut is linked to huge health benefits. According to Healthline, these include:
- Weight loss
- Improved digestion
- Enhanced immune function
- Healthier skin
- Reduced risk of some diseases
But what are the specific benefits of probiotics? Probiotics themselves help to send food through the gut by affecting nerves that control gut movement. There is more research to be done when it comes to which probiotic strain is best for which issue. However, according to WebMD, generally, probiotics (all strains) are used in the treatment of
- IBS (Irritable bowel syndrome)
- IBD (Inflammatory bowel disease)
- Infectious diarrhea (caused by viruses, bacteria, or parasites)
- Diarrhea caused by antibiotics
There is also some research that suggests probiotics may be useful in the treatment of skin conditions such as eczema, urinary and vaginal health issues in women, the prevention of colds and allergies, and even oral health.
Are probiotics right for me and are they safe to take?
Unfortunately, probiotics are regulated by the FDA as foods rather than as medications. This essentially means that companies that make probiotic supplements don’t have to show their products are safe or that they work in the same way as drug companies. As with most things, it’s best to ask your doctor whether taking a probiotic is a good idea. Generally, probiotics either in the form of foods or supplements seem to be relatively safe for most people. However, people with immune system problems or other serious health conditions shouldn’t take them.
As far as side effects go, they’re usually mild. They might come as a result of taking them for the first time and usually go away after a couple of days. Side effects include gas, bloating, diarrhea, and an upset stomach. Probiotics can sometimes trigger allergic reactions due to the fact that many of them are made from dairy. This usually occurs in people who have a severe milk allergy. If this happens or the mild side effects do not subside after a couple of days, you should stop taking them and speak to your doctor.
So, should you try a probiotic?
The simple answer seems to be yes. Probiotics are often prescribed by doctors and are generally thought to be safe for most people. Benefits associated with probiotics and the healthy gut that comes as a result of taking them are what encourage most people to include a probiotic supplement in their daily routine. Though they are found in some foods, it’s difficult to know how much probiotic a food product contains. So, if you’re looking to improve gut health, a daily supplement is best as the amount of probiotic is consistent. However, though they seem like a good idea and aren’t known for causing harm, you should still talk to your doctor before starting to take probiotics.