The digestive tract is a complex part of the body, made up of hundreds of trillions of bacteria. These bacteria help to maintain the normal function of your intestines. When something is disrupted, your gut flora, or “good” bacteria, gets disrupted. This can trigger anything from mild bloating to diarrhea.
Probiotics are a beneficial source of live bacteria that can be taken in through food or supplements. Of course, there are some things you should know before buying and taking a probiotic supplement. Keep reading to learn more about them and how they may help ease your digestive problems.
What are probiotics?
Within the past few years, the term “probiotics” has risen in popularity. While it may seem like the latest craze in the health world, it has an exact definition. Probiotics are defined as live microorganisms that have a health benefit when taken or given in adequate amounts.
What are natural sources of probiotics?
Probiotics can be found naturally in foods and beverages. Some of the most probiotic-rich food items include:
- sourdough bread
What are probiotic supplements?
Besides occurring naturally, probiotics can also be taken as a supplement. They are typically sold over-the-counter in either liquid, tablet, or powder form. Similar to vitamins, probiotic supplements are additions to an already healthy diet plan.
But it’s important to know that probiotic supplements are sold as dietary supplements, and are therefore not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They also come in varying doses and each supplement has its own set of instructions. Read the labels closely before taking your first dose.
Should I take a probiotic supplement?
The answer to this question depends on your health needs. In general, healthy people don’t need to take a supplement to improve their gut health.
Of course, certain things can disrupt the digestive tract. This includes stress, eating poorly, and taking certain medications like antibiotics. If you have continuous digestive problems, consider talking to your doctor about adding a probiotic supplement to your diet.
People who may want to consider probiotics include:
- those with bowel disorders, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- adults recently prescribed antibiotics, since this medication kills gut bacteria
- those who are recovering from an intestinal infection
- those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
The most common side effects are mild, including gas, bloating, and other digestive irregularities.
What should I know before taking a probiotic supplement?
If you and your doctor decide that taking a supplement may be beneficial to you, there are certain things you should know before starting:
- Read the instructions. Each supplement has its own set of instructions. These directions may tell you the optimal time to take the supplement, such as before or during a meal. They will also say how often to take them and any safety warnings.
- Look at the expiration date. Just like most food products and vitamins, these supplements have a short shelf life. Never take a supplement past its expiration date to avoid further digestive problems.
- Store them properly. Because probiotics are live bacteria, they may need to be refrigerated. Read the label for more information.
- Know why you’re taking them. Choosing a probiotic supplement shouldn’t be a haphazard decision. You and your doctor should discuss why you’re taking them and which one is best for your digestive health needs.
What does the research say?
Studies about the exact benefits of probiotics, including probiotic supplements, are mixed. Since probiotics are not a one-size-fits-all treatment, their effectiveness depends on many things. This includes the type of bacteria in the food or supplement, the condition you have, and how well the bacteria are able to survive in the intestinal tract.
Most research has focused on the effect of probiotics on gastrointestinal conditions. But research continues to explore the role of probiotics for other medical conditions such as allergies, tooth and gum disease, liver problems, and even the common cold.
Currently, the FDA has not approved any probiotics for the treatment of any condition.
While the research on probiotics may be inconclusive, foods with naturally occurring probiotics are part of a healthy diet. Yogurt, sauerkraut, and even miso have been eaten for hundreds of years without any major studies finding them to be unhealthy.
Make sure to speak with your doctor before taking a probiotic supplement. If you’re experiencing digestive issues, a probiotic supplement may provide relief.