Bacteria is generally thought of as being something we avoid. We wash our hands using antibacterial soap, lather on antibacterial hand gel after shaking hands, and do everything possible to rid ourselves of bacteria.
So why should I buy this carton of super yogurt that has 1.91 billion live and active probiotic cultures per 8 oz. serving?
The answer: this kind of bacteria, called probiotics, is good for you!
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria, or “good” bacteria, that help support your immune system and aid in healthy digestion. They are also referred to as good microbes.
Probiotics occur naturally within your body, but they are also found in some foods and may be purchased as supplements. You are probably already eating these microbes without realizing it if you enjoy fermented products like yogurt, some cheeses, and pickled vegetables like sauerkraut.
According to the Mayo Clinic, these beneficial bacteria are the same or similar to the bacteria that already exists in your body. These “good” bacteria create a harmonious balance with your “bad” bacteria to keep you healthy and support your immune and digestive systems.
You Are Full of Bacteria
Did you know there is a greater number of bacteria in your intestines than cells in your body? Most people are surprised to learn this, and even more shocked to hear that it’s a good thing.
There are trillions of bacteria that live in your gastrointestinal tract, or gut, in the form of receptor cells.
When your gut is healthy, it means there is a large, thriving community of beneficial bacteria, or in other words, natural probiotics. These bacteria help protect your organs by forming a protective barrier within your intestine and colon that fights the bad bacteria when it attacks.
The Problem with Having Too Much Bad Bacteria
Ideally, the goal should be to eat well and live a healthy lifestyle to maintain a well-balanced intestine. An imbalanced one with too much “bad” bacteria can lead to chronic health conditions, constipation, weight gain, diarrhea, and even skin problems.
When the bad bacteria outnumber the good, probiotics work by attaching to immune cells before the bad bacteria has the chance to attach first and cause things like infection or inflammation. The good microbes destroy the bad ones and the toxins they emit.
That is why probiotics, either naturally living in your gut or ingested as a supplement, are critical.
How Probiotics Can Help You
Research has shown probiotics can be helpful in:
- Boosting your immune system
- Bettering digestive function
- Improving irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease
- Reducing infectious diarrhea caused by viruses, parasites, or bacteria or antibiotic-related diarrhea
There is also some research that shows probiotics have helped with skin conditions like eczema, urinary and vaginal health, preventing allergies and colds, and improving oral health.
Have you ever been prescribed an antibiotic and your doctor advises you to take it with yogurt? It’s because they know the antibiotic is going to take away both the “good” and the “bad bacteria” in your system and they want the probiotics in the yogurt to replace the good bacteria that is lost.
Before you drive your bacteria-ridden self to the grocery store to stock on probiotics – pause.
What to Know Before You Buy
You should always consult with your doctor before beginning a probiotic regime. You also want to receive proper dosing instructions based on your health history. While in general, probiotics are safe for most people, some with serious immune system problems should discuss with their doctor first.
Many types of bacteria are classified as probiotics, but most are found in these two groups: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Lactobacillus is the most common probiotic found in yogurt and fermented foods. If you are lactose intolerant, different strains within this group can help with things like diarrhea and irritable bowel disease.
Bifidobacterium is the group of probiotics that can help ease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal issues. You can also find this probiotic in some dairy products.
Choosing Your Probiotic Supplement
With thousands of commercial probiotic supplements, how do you choose? Here are three tips to find your probiotic partner in good health:
Check the CFUs.
When choosing a supplement, you want a probiotic that contains 3 to 50 billion Colony Forming Units, or CFUs. This is how probiotics are measured and will help you gauge the dosage based on your needs.
If you have a healthy digestive system and need a maintenance probiotic, the lower end of this range would suffice. If you are having issues with your gut, then a higher CFU count would be in order.
Know your strain.
Sometimes the manufacturer will list the complete name on the label like in the example above, while others may abbreviate using only “L” or “B.” For example, instead of Lactobacillus rhamnosus, it would read L. rhamnosus. It’s the same strain, just a different citation.
Your doctor can help identify which strain will work best for your condition. If you don’t have an ailment and just want a probiotic supplement, a mix of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium is a great place to start.
Check the expiration and storing instructions.
Before you head to the checkout line, make sure the probiotic supplement you’re buying has a reasonable expiration date and lists a guarantee regarding its potency. Look for a disclaimer that the probiotic is guaranteed until the time of expiration to ensure you get proper dosage with each pill. If there is not a guarantee, you risk buying a bottle boasting 50 billion CFUs that, over time, could lose CFUs decreasing its potency.
How to Safely Use Your Probiotic
Once you have decided which probiotic supplement is right for you, there are a few things to consider before taking them on a regular basis.
Keep your doctor informed.
Treat this supplement as you would any other medication and tell your doctor to add this supplement to your list of medications. This information should include the brand, name, strength, and dosage frequency.
Record any side effects.
If you notice any unwanted side effects after starting your probiotic, let your doctor know. They can help you determine if it’s the right strain for you, or recommend another strain of probiotic that may help. In some cases, mild side effects may include gas, bloating, diarrhea or upset stomach initially, but over time they may subside or go away completely.
Trust Your Gut.
After you have taken your probiotic for a while, ask yourself how you feel it’s working and trust both your gut and your instincts regarding long-term use. Keep in mind that the FDA regulates probiotics like food, not medications, so manufacturers don’t have to prove they work before they are sold commercially. If you don’t notice a change in how you feel, ask your doctor to recommend a different brand to try.
Probiotics can help balance the bacteria in your gut, giving you the good bacteria you need to be healthy.