Probiotics appear on store shelves everywhere you go. Many claim to boost immunity, energy levels and even help with weight loss.
Not everyone benefits from probiotics – at least, as far as we can tell right now. Your need for natural probiotics supplements depends on your health – despite what supplement manufacturers might tell you.
Probiotics are great if your digestive system is all out of whack. But, otherwise, we’re not quite sure how they help us…yet.
Do you need to take probiotics to stay healthy? Are there any health benefits of probiotics – and are there risks to taking probiotics? Here is everything you NEED to know about probiotics and your health.
History of Probiotics
It’s possible that probiotics have been around for 10,000 years. (1) Foods that contain probiotics are called fermented foods. The more popular foods include:
These probiotics foods are nothing new, though they were probably, like many other scientific revelations, discovered accidentally.
Probiotics have been present in specific types of food for centuries. Science hasn’t always called them by their name – or used them the way we do now.
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the medical community started taking this concept seriously. (3) Since then, researchers have sought to uncover the potential health benefits of probiotics.
Supplement manufacturers have since taken advantage of the opportunity to encourage consumers to introduce “good” bacteria into their digestive tracts, whether they needed the probiotics supplements or not.
Summary: Future probiotic research hopes to tackle the role of probiotics in preventing and treating obesity, allergies, and even autism in children. (4) At this time, it’s unknown the benefits of probiotics toward weight loss, immunity and energy boosting.
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are live cultures of bacteria that are supposed to diminish the possible negative effects of harmful bacteria in your digestive tract. (2)
It’s important to maintain a healthy balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in your gut to stay healthy. Many experts suggest introducing probiotics into your system when there aren’t enough healthy bacteria naturally present, such as after taking an antibiotic to cure an infection.
Probiotics exist in many fermented foods, like certain types of yogurt. They are also available as dietary supplements to be consumed orally.
The true effects of probiotics in both healthy people and those with chronic diseases aren’t yet known. Using probiotics to treat disease is a more recent concept, so in time research will be able to suggest more accurate benefits.
Summary: Probiotics are live bacteria that can help balance out the microbiome in your gut. Science is still unsure of all their potential benefits, but we do know probiotics help to control growth of “bad” bacteria and improve digestion in many people.
Difference Between Probiotics and Prebiotics
Probiotics, such as Align, and prebiotics used in tandem can both benefit your digestive health.
Probiotics are the living bacteria themselves. You will often find probiotics in fermented foods like yogurt and certain soy based foods.
Prebiotics are “food” for probiotics. (5) They help probiotics thrive in your digestive system, leading to a more controlled growth of potentially harmful bacteria. Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that can, along with probiotics, benefit your digestive system.
You can get prebiotics by eating common foods such as bananas, garlic, asparagus, soybeans, artichokes, and whole wheat products. (6)
Summary: Probiotics are bacteria that promote a healthy, well-balanced digestive tract. Prebiotics are the “food” that allows probiotics to thrive and keep your digestive tract healthy.
Best Time to Take Probiotics
There are two ways you can take probiotics – either through a dietary probiotic supplement or by consuming foods that contain strains of probiotics.
You can take probiotics in supplement form, but you’ll need to do your homework before you choose the right supplement. Each brand of probiotic supplement is different, and which one you purchase depends on your reason for taking probiotics.
Check each supplement’s label (or website, if the label doesn’t help) to determine the following:
- The bacterial strain of the product
- The number of live bacteria in the product (before it expires)
- The recommended dosage
- The company and its contact information.
Learn everything you can about a probiotic supplement before taking anything. If you are ever unsure of whether or not a supplement will benefit you, or whether or not it is safe to consume, speak with a health care provider.
Many fermented foods contain live strains of bacteria that can benefit your gut. Yogurt, tempeh, miso, kimchi, kefir, and sourdough bread are all easily accessible foods that contain probiotics. (7)
Make sure you read food labels the same way you (hopefully) read dietary supplement labels. Effective probiotic foods will contain “live, active cultures.”
Summary: You can get probiotics through eating certain fermented foods or by taking probiotic supplements. Read the labels of each very carefully to make sure you are consuming the right probiotic strains in the correct recommended amounts.
Benefits of Probiotics
Researchers are still diving deep into the possible benefits of probiotics, both in foods and in supplement form. However, we do know probiotics might help prevent and treat yeast infections and urinary tract infections, treat symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, and reduce cold and flu symptoms. (8)
People with inflammatory bowel diseases like IBS, Chron’s disease, or ulcerative colitis may benefit from taking probiotics. (9) This is a fairly new concept, so researchers aren’t sure of the extent of these possible benefits, or how probiotics help ease symptoms – yet.
Probiotics can also benefit your digestive system when you’re recovering from an infection that requires antibiotics to treat.
Doctors will often prescribe probiotics along with antibiotics to prevent diarrhea and other associated gastrointestinal side effects. (10) While antibiotics kill off all bacteria in your gut – both good and bad – probiotics replenish your digestive system with healthy bacteria to keep your gut in shape as you heal.
Keep in mind that probiotic benefits are specific to bacterial strains. (11) If you are taking a probiotic for digestive issues like diarrhea, for example, make sure the probiotic you purchase contains Lactobacillus GG. (12)
Consult your health care provider before choosing a supplement to make sure you’re introducing the strain that’s going to be most effective for your circumstances.
Summary: Probiotics can be extremely beneficial for those with inflammatory bowel diseases and those taking antibiotics.
Are Probiotics Safe?
Probiotic supplements are much riskier than the probiotics you can get from fermented foods. Supplements usually won’t cause harm, but they aren’t monitored the same way foods and drugs are.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) categorizes probiotic supplements as dietary supplements, not food. (13)
As a result, manufacturers aren’t required to list the exact ingredients in these supplements. They are responsible for “regulating” their own products for quality and safety.
Unfortunately, this means some probiotic supplements might not contain significant amounts of bacterial strains as advertised. For all you know, you might end up paying for a product that doesn’t actually include the ingredient you are expecting.
Summary: The FDA isn’t involved in the approval process for probiotic supplements. They only step in if a product requires thorough investigation, which tends to happen after customers start reporting adverse side effects.
Probiotics Side Effects
For the average, healthy individual, any probiotic side effects tend to be mild and limited to digestion. (2) Bloating and gas, for example, are common early side effects of probiotic use.
It’s important that you never take more probiotics than a supplement’s dosage recommends. Consuming too many probiotic supplements can result in small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which causes excessive bloating and gas. (14)
To prevent probiotics side effects as much as possible, whether mild or more severe, start with low doses and gradually increase your intake. As you do this, you should monitor how you feel.
If you start experiencing negative symptoms, consider speaking with a qualified dietitian or health care professional about your desire to use probiotics. They can help you choose dietary supplements that fit your needs while keeping you comfortable, safe, and healthy.
Summary: For healthy people, probiotics have few, very mild side effects when consumed in moderation. Mind the recommended dosages of any supplement you take, and always consult a health professional before you start taking probiotics.
The Bottom Line on Probiotics
There is a lot we still don’t know about the role probiotics play in our long-term health and disease risk. Like many other uncertainties in the nutrition world, moderate amounts probably won’t hurt you, but too much might hurt.
If you suffer from digestive issues or are fighting an infection, probiotics might become your best friend – and there’s nothing wrong with that!
As with any loosely regulated product, just be careful when taking probiotic supplements. Always speak with a dietitian or doctor before taking supplements you can buy without a prescription. For the healthiest gut possible, maintain a diet high in fiber, protein, and healthy fats, and keep your refined sugar consumption to a minimum at best.
Meg Dowell, M.S., is a staff Health and Fitness writer with The Cheat Sheet, and a freelance health editor and writer. She has earned bachelors degrees in English and Dietetics, a master’s degree in Health Communication, and a graduate certificate in Visual and Digital Health Communication. full bio