What You Need to Know About Probiotics

In 2015, probiotics were a $33.19 billion dollar business, and the popularity of these beneficial bacteria shows no sign of slowing down. Americans are consuming and absorbing probiotics in everything from face creams to supplements.

What’s behind the trend?

Probiotics are known as “functional foods” — they don’t just provide nutrients, but they have health benefits, too. Foods enhanced with probiotics and probiotic supplements are said to alleviate digestive ailments and increase our resistance to infection, which aging, stress and a poor diet can compromise. (See our article “How to Keep Your Microbiome Healthy As You Age.”)

You can take your probiotics in fermented foods — yogurt, kefir and fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi are good sources. And, of course, you can take supplements.

Do Probiotics Work?

Researchers around the world are investigating what happens when healthy gut bacteria — your microbiome — goes awry. It’s suspected that depression, anxiety, various intestinal troubles, and many other health conditions are linked to a disturbance in gut bacteria. Taking probiotics in food or supplements may restore a bacterial imbalance or a specific shortfall.

Research on probiotics looks promising, and while there’s still no solid proof that boosting the healthy bugs in your body will “prevent” or “treat” anything, some physicians believe there’s enough evidence to suggest that it’s worth taking a probiotic if you have irritable bowel syndrome, have taken antibiotics, or want to prevent traveler’s diarrhea. Research underway may show that taking probiotics can help other conditions, too.

Probiotics are considered safe for most people. The exceptions: Anyone with an impaired immune system or who is undergoing therapy that affects immunity — chemotherapy or radiation treatments, for example.

Shop Smart for a Probiotic

Probiotics aren’t cheap, so you want to shop wisely. If you’re lucky, your doctor will have done the research and knows which types, genera and strain of bacteria would be useful for your situation. (Some strains are better for certain conditions than others.) If you’re even luckier, she’ll be familiar with the different brands.

If your doctor doesn’t recommend a particular supplement, here are five things to know about buying and taking probiotics.

  • Look for Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. There’s almost an infinite number of genera and strains of bacteria, but you can’t go wrong if you have at least one or both of these. [The first word or initial that’s capitalized on the ingredients list is the genus. The second word is the strain.]
  • Consider big numbers. We’re talking billions of CFU’s — which stands for “colony forming units” of live bacteria. No one knows the amount we actually need to take, but experts do know that there are trillions in the colon of a healthy person.
  • Check the expiration date. Some products are short lived, so be sure the one you choose is dated at least two or three months ahead. (This is one reason NOT to buy in bulk or keep a bottle on hand just in case you need it in the future.)
  • Choose a blister pack or supplements in a dark bottle that contains a little pouch of humidity-absorbing material. And since light and moisture can squelch probiotic activity, once you open a bottle of supplements, keep it in a cool, dark and dry place.

Feed Your Beneficial Bacteria with Prebiotics

Whether you pick probiotic-rich foods or a supplement, think about feeding the healthy bacteria in your gut. They need something to eat to stay alive and reproduce. That something is a prebiotic— a type of fiber or carbohydrate that is not digested. Garlic and onions have it. So do bananas. Prebiotics are also available in supplements, and some contain both healthy bacteria and the prebiotic, inulin.

 

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