Should You Be Popping Probiotics?

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Whenever a new product is granted prime real estate on the shelves where we purchase our fish oil and multivitamins, we can’t help but wonder: “Should I be taking this, too?” Probiotics are no exception. Sounds great on paper: The live organisms (we’ll get there—it’s not so bad) are touted to neutralize disease-causing bacteria and restore balance in the gut. But do our digestive systems really need regulating?

Our gut is home to 100 trillion bacteria—90% good, 10% bad. “Because of the 9-to-1 balance, good bacteria keep bad bacteria in balance,” explains Shekhar Challa, M.D., president of Kansas Medical Clinic. “But that balance can get screwed up—by aging, diet, stress, illness, or antibiotics.” Emerging research indicates that fixing these gut-bacteria imbalances could be key to fighting everything from obesity to anxiety, although studies have largely been conducted on animals and are often funded by food or supplement manufacturers. The most convincing data to date show that probiotics may be effective in treating digestive health issues like inflammatory bowel disease and antibiotic-associated diarrhea.

Of course, pumping billions of live bacteria into your body is a scary thought. But it turns out there’s little to worry about, says Mary Ellen Sanders, Ph.D., executive director of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics: “No apparent negative effects have been observed when consumed by the generally healthy population.” 

Still, it’s too soon to call probiotics the holy grail of good health. “Certain strains of bacteria might be beneficial for certain disorders, but there’s no overall blanket statement or proven benefit,” says William Chey, M.D., professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Health System. “The patients are out ahead of the scientists.”

So, until the science is sound, whether or not to make probiotics a part of your diet comes down to one question: Does it make you feel better? “Even if it’s a placebo effect, that’s OK,” says Chey. “It’s still a benefit.

“The big challenge is knowing which one to take,” says Challa. Your doc can help determine which bacteria might be beneficial in treating whatever is keeping you from feeling 100%, whether that’s bloating or constipation or something more serious. From there, look for specific strains in food and supplement form.