Q: Should I be taking probiotics?
A: I get this question. A lot. Most people asking however, I have realized don’t even know what probiotics are. So, before I answer whether you should or shouldn’t be taking one, here is the 411 on what they are:
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “live microorganisms, which, when consumed in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” Because of these benefits, probiotics are often referred to as “good” or “friendly” bacteria. In case, you’re still confused, you are the host.
What is the intestinal microbiota and how does it affect one’s digestive health?
A complex ecosystem of bacteria, known as the “intestinal microbiota,” develops after birth and lives in the intestinal tract. Yes, we all have a whole ecosystem of bacteria happening in our gut. The intestinal microbiota contains both “good” and “bad” bacteria. When the balance is tipped toward “bad” bacteria, which can be due to lack of sleep, stress, or various other causes, it may affect digestive health and overall well-being. Consuming certain probiotics can help this whole gut situation by providing a regular source of “friendly” bacteria to the intestinal tract, improving how it functions.
Are all probiotics the same?
No. There are many strains of beneficial cultures that have probiotic potential. But, the benefits associated with probiotics are strain-specific (and these benefits must be established through adequate studies.) Also, the range of benefits can vary according to the amount consumed.
Live cultures are microbes used to ferment foods. Not all live and active cultures are probiotics (meaning they don’t all have studies supporting specific benefits.) Therefore a product that contains live and active cultures does not necessarily qualify as a probiotic.
What are some of the benefits of probiotics?
The benefits that are known today include helping to regulate the digestive system, helping to support the immune system, and helping to maintain your overall health. There is a lot of research going on in the area of probiotics connected to weight and brain health too.
What does the “Live & Active Cultures” seal mean?
The “Live Active Cultures” seal was established by the National Yogurt Association to help consumers distinguish between yogurts that contain a minimum level of live and active cultures and those that do not. It’s important to note that not all live and active cultures are probiotics.
In addition to consuming probiotics, what can the average person do to maintain good digestive health?
The World Gastroenterology Organization (WGO) recommends the following tips for maintaining good digestive health:
- Incorporate fermented dairy products into your diet (I say aim for one a day!)
- Include foods rich in fiber
- Drink plenty of fluids
- Reduce intake of fried, fattening foods
- Eat small, frequent meals
- Don’t rush eating
- Exercise regularly and abstain from smoking
- Maintain a healthy body weight
- Consume fish 3-5 times per week
- Select lean meats
So, should I take a probiotic supplement?
I recommend that most people include a serving of fermented food each day (kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut) and take a probiotic as insurance for good gut health (in addition to doing your best to adhere to the above tips.) If you have specific concerns (immunity, constipation, diarrhea etc.) make sure to take a probiotic with a specific strain that has been proven to aid that condition.