After years of hearing about the benefits of probiotics, you probably think you know everything you need to. Chances are they were your friend to help you through the winter ambush of colds. To most minds, there’s probably no mystery left.
Given the nature of the good news plus more good news, you’re either in favor of probiotics or you’re like me, a totally pro-probiotic fanatic.
But regular doses of probiotics? Hmmmm.
Even in the media, probiotics are discussed generically, rather than mentioning the individual helpful strains of friendly bacteria. Such overgeneralizations leave us unsure if you should be taking them, which ones to take, how often to take them, and (when you just get down to it) what exactly is it that probiotics do?
Well, I’m gonna break it all down for you, demonstrating, once and for always, just how awesome probiotics can be.
First, let’s see what “the authorities” say. 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.” Probiotics are often referred to as “good” or “friendly” bacteria, and YOU are the host the WHO is referring to in this instance.
But what exactly are probiotics, you ask? Well, stay with me here.
A complex ecosystem of bacteria, known as the “intestinal microbiota,” develops after birth, taking up residence in the intestinal tract. Yep, we have a whole ecosystem of bacteria shacking up in our gut. The intestinal microbiota contains both “good” and “bad” bacteria. When the “bad” starts to outweigh the “good,” which can be due to lack of sleep, excess stress, or a bunch of other causes, it may affect your digestive system and your overall well-being.
To level off any imbalances, taking a probiotic supplement can help this whole gut situation. Maintaining a consistent level of “good” bacteria in your intestinal tract may actually improve how well it functions. Take that, “bad” bacteria!
Having adequate “good” bacteria has been shown to help support a healthy digestive system, a healthy immune system and help maintain oral health.
But all probiotics are NOT created equally. This is where it gets tricky.
There are many strains of cultures that have probiotic potential. But, each strain does different things, and each has its own little suitcase of benefits. We figure all this out in controlled studies, and we also figure out if you need a little bit or loads of a certain strain to reap its benefits.
You may have seen something on a food label (think yogurt or sauerkraut) about live and active cultures. Live cultures are microbes used to ferment foods, but not all live and active cultures are probiotics (meaning they don’t all have studies supporting specific benefits.) 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 versus those that don’t.
So, bottom line, should you take a probiotic supplement?
I recommend that most people include a serving of fermented food each day (for example, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut) and take a premium probiotic supplement as insurance for good gut health and overall wellness. When you do this and your best to adhere to a healthy lifestyle, including managing stress and getting the proper amount of Zzz’s, you may just become a pro-probiotic fanatic, too!
Keri Glassman MS.RD.CDN