Can Probiotics Help Your Gut?

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You’ve probably heard from a girlfriend, co-worker, neighbor, or relative about the digestive health benefits of probiotics — a word few of us had heard until about five years ago. 

Actually, the word means “for life.” Probiotics are live microorganisms — “good” bacteria and yeasts — normally found in your intestines to some degree. Adding more, similar probiotics through some foods and dietary supplements may help maintain a healthy digestive system and limit the growth of "bad" bacteria that causes problems.

“I believe probiotics play an important role in human nutrition. In fact, I take a probiotic supplement every day,” says Dale Block, MD, of Premier Family Care of Mason. “There’s some evidence that probiotics may be helpful in preventing digestive disorders such as diarrhea caused by infections, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.” 

Remarkably, some studies also show that probiotics may help with allergic disorders such as eczema and hay fever; tooth decay, periodontal disease, and other oral health problems; colic in infants (when a breastfeeding mother takes probiotics); and liver disease. Common side effects include gas and bloating.

But here’s the “but” — strong scientific evidence to support specific uses of probiotics for health conditions is lacking.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved probiotics for preventing or treating any health problem. “But keep in mind that probiotics isn’t the type of product that the FDA even studies,” says Dr. Block.

Medical studies have not shown probiotics to be harmful to healthy people, so many women adopt a “why not try it!” attitude. Checking with your health care provider before starting is always a good idea, especially if you have health problems.

"Probiotics may be helpful in preventing digestive disorders such as diarrhea caused by infections, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.”

Food and Drinks with Probiotics

You can get probiotics into your digestive system with the choices you make in food and drink:

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  • Soy drinks
  • Yogurt
  • Acidophilus milk 
  • Buttermilk
  • Some soft cheeses such as Gouda
  • Also in miso, tempeh, kefir, kimchi and unpasteurized sauerkraut

Look for labels that identify "live active cultures" or that include the full name of the type or strain of bacteria on the nutritional label. Most of these are of the Lactobacillus and Bifdobacterium variety. 

Supplements

Probiotics are also available as dietary supplements in capsules, tablets, powders and liquids. According to the National Institutes of Health, among adults, probiotics or prebiotics (a specialized plant fiber) are the third most commonly used dietary supplement.

Small Steps: Eat Right
A balanced diet lessens your need for supplements.