Probiotics: What You Need to Know

Show promise in restoring 'good bacteria', improving digestion

bowl of yogurt

Probiotic supplements have been touted to improve gut health, balance vaginal flora and strengthen the immune system. They contain beneficial bacteria naturally found in the intestinal tract and in some foods, including yogurt, pickles, soft cheeses and sauerkraut. So, it makes sense to consider adding probiotic supplements to your diet.

Studies are under way

What you need to know is that the jury is still out on the specific health benefits of probiotic supplements. Research studies on their effectiveness are still ongoing, and as a dietary supplement, probiotics don’t require Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to be placed on the market.

“Though probiotics are generally considered safe to use and show a lot of promise in certain gastrointestinal illness, they are not FDA approved at present,”  says Lindsay Dowhan, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Gut Rehabilitation and Transplantation.  “Currently, research shows mixed results and more research is needed to evaluate their effects in specific populations and disease states.”

That said, Ms. Dowhan says she often recommends probiotics to her clients, and she has found them helpful in many cases.

Probiotics: good bacteria

Probiotics are live microorganisms that are the same or similar to microorganisms found naturally in the human body. They are also referred to as “good bacteria” or “helpful bacteria” that help absorb nutrients. There are over-the-counter supplements in the form of pills, powder or liquid, in addition to those found in some foods.

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“Probiotic preparations are not all the same,” says Ms. Dowhan. “There may be considerable differences in the amount of bacteria among products.”

This variety creates challenges in determining specific benefits. As a dietitian, Ms. Dowhan says she would suggest that people considering probiotics talk with a healthcare professional who can help them make an educated choice when choosing a probiotic supplement.

 Why people take probiotics

Probiotics are sometimes used to counteract the side effects of certain antibiotic treatments. Antibiotics can cause gastrointestinal issues, infectious diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome. Probiotics can help offset these issues by restoring the “good bacteria” that is lost.

“Probiotics are generally used to repopulate our bodies with good bacteria,” says Ms. Dowhan. ”A lot of the studies focus on people with gastrointestinal illness, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or different infectious diarrhea.”

Some probiotic companies claim to aid those suffering from celiac disease. When people with the disease consume gluten, their immune system causes a damaging inflammation in the small intestine. The inflammation blocks nutrients from being absorbed. Some companies claim their supplement provides bacteria that can help absorb the right nutrients.

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Why you need to talk to your doctor

While probiotics hold much promise, particularly for various digestive illness, the lack of FDA regulation means that consumers need to be aware that differences among products exist, and they should talk to a healthcare professional before starting, Ms. Dowhan says.

Remember that supplements are not regulated – there’s no regulation of manufacturing techniques or any guarantees about what is really contained in each capsule.

If you’re considering probiotics, the first thing you should do is check the label for the probiotic name, which will include the genus, species and strain, and then discuss options with your doctor. Some strains may make more sense to take than others, depending on your condition.


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  • suz

    Nexium and similar drugs are really bad for your health. After two years of reflux (even with water) I was able to stop taking it by replacing with a great probiotic. Some are better than others. Even while taking nexium I had problems with pasta, chocolate & other high acidic foods. The probiotics changed everything. No digestive problems at all & no more nexium! I’m your test results. I have recommended these to so many others and they work.

    • Marcia Boehmke

      I am looking for a good probiotic for my husband for the same reasons you gave.

      • Sharon Scott

        What probiotic do you recommend as a good one?

        • Kindspirit

          PureBiotics by MD Prescriptives…has 27 billion bacteria…have to purchase through doctor online…well worth the price…will see benefit quickly. Great product!

        • SuzL

          Mercola Complete Probiitics. 70 billion/10 strains.

      • SuzL

        Mercola Complete Probiotics. 70 billion bacteria /10 strains.

    • Pamala Vela

      The Pearl ones work wonders for me.

    • Connie Kelly

      What kind do you use? Particular brand?

  • Rosie

    I take the little Pearl probiotics and see such a difference with IBS….Amazing!

    • Pamala Vela

      I have Interstitial Cystitis and bowel problems cause lots of pain. I’ve been taking the Pearl ones from a couple years. They really make a difference! I tried Activia and Phillips, but they did nothing. I found out that there are hardly any probiotics in the yogurt and they don’t survive the digestion process. The phillips just did nothing at all.
      Be careful – there’s some ads out there claiming to be the holy grail….

    • Marti Cozza Arnold

      Can you tell me which Pearls you take? They have different initials and I don’t know what they mean. I have IBS C. Been checking on Amazon and am confused. Thanks.

  • ProbioticsEtc Page

    Great refresher article. Will go on our website to help promote the cause. is one place to do all your probiotics research for free. Hundreds of products are listed, We dont sell any products but provide you all the tools to do your research, including comparing multiple products and also compare prices on external website – All in one place.
    Hope this helps.

  • Rick

    I once suffered from IBS and GERD (Reflux) I was taking 40mg of Omeprazol. I am happy to say that Probiotics solved this problem for me. It’s hard to believe but that tiny little capsule has made a huge improvement in my health. The particular brand I take has a triple layer designed to make it past the stomach acids and break down in the small intestines and slowly releases 1 billion live, healthy probiotics. This is the only place I know where they can be purchased but well worth the price!

  • lala

    I always love the advice to talk with your provider. When most providers truly get up to date on these issues I would love to have a conversation. At this point though I don’t find most providers very informed about these sorts of approaches. Of course there is the rare provider who keeps up and had an open mind but they seem to be the exception to the norm.

    • Richard Kovacs

      I pay attention to doctors like Oz and Weil who have both the traditional medical training and the willingness to consider alternative approaches. I pay no attention to alarmists and hucksters who are too lazy to go to medical school.

    • Sue

      My doctor recommended I try pro-biotics for my stomach issues. Within a week I noticed a difference.

  • chrisel

    “”the lack of FDA regulation””””: This is a good thing .You keep repeating that thorough out the article .The record shows that the FDA has a HORRIBLE record and its approval it doesn’t mean much to many. Most of us, see that the pharmaceutical industry want the FDA to regulate everything .That mean HUGE cost to us the consumers. From the comments you will notice that many people, found relief with out having to take expensive medicine with DANGEROUS site effects. If you want you articles to have a positive effect on people, leave the FDA out .We maybe sick but we are NOT stupid .

    • Richard Kovacs

      It’s important to know what’s in the preparation and that batches are consistent. There isn’t any other organization with the charge to do so. As to side effects of traditional meds, isn’t this article agreeing that Probiotics may be a beneficial alternative?

      • chrisel

        That’s the perpetual argument “safety” ….Please .How many FDA “approved ” drugs are in litigation now? As a matter of fact how many lawsuits are against the agency now? May be The FDA has outrun its usefulness.There is a great number of consumers (and its is growing daily ) ,that an FDA endorsement registers as a NO GO automatically …. What I’m saying
        is wright the article and leave the FDA out.Thank you for you reply though.

        • Richard Kovacs

          Please offer your solution that insures meds are prepared consistently and are accurately described without relying on the FDA. Consumer Reports? Fox News?

          • GeorgeBMac

            Richard, you are correct that no other agency is charged with protecting the American people from ineffective or unsafe drugs. But neither does that mean the FDA actually DOES protect the American people from ineffective or unsafe drugs.

            Mostly the FDA protects the drug pushers — oops! I meant the drug companies.

          • SuzL

            Right on George!

  • Lori

    I drink kefir… I have my own grains and make it and drink it everyday… Been doing this for about 3 yrs…. Very beneficial….

  • GeorgeBMac

    Perhaps the best probiotic involves driving past the local McD’s and instead eating a healthy diet with sufficient fiber and fluids.

  • JC

    I almost feel silly asking this but…. Is it safe to use probiotics, such as kefir, if I take prednisone for Lupus? I’m trying to quiet my immune system not rev it up and was wondering if probiotics would actually harm my body more?

  • Mary

    I take UP4 Ultra for my IBS and it really does wonders.
    I buy it from my local Whole Foods. Seriously, I’m a believer!

    • marilyn rodriguez

      I just bought the up4 because I have gerd and ibs. Been on ppi’s for 15 years. All.they do is help.a tiny bit. I live on maalox, been to er to many times to remember and I think I have had about every test possible and been to all the gi doctors around and as far as a couple hundred miles away. All have different stories but same recommendations. Drugs and more test. I really hope the up4 helps alot so I can get my life back. I’m in such pain all the time all I do is sit and gain weight. Thank you for your post

  • Ricky T

    I recommend everybody take 25-30 billion units. If you have specific GI issues then go with 100-125 billion units. I have found that Swanson Vitamins has a high quality product at a reasonable price…

  • Wendy Elizabeth Wilde Mellenth

    A year ago I had 26 inches of my large and small intestines removed because a benign tumor wrapped around them and twisted causing pain. The resulting surgery also took my appendix and right ovary. I was put on Lomotil and told all of the things I probably could not eat and that I would have to deal with diarrhea the rest of my life. Not willing to live with that sentence I went on a course of probiotics that ended the diarrhea and has allowed me to eat just about anything except roasted Hatch peppers. I credit Culturelle for restoring my health and my sanity. Patients have to be their own health advocates. I am grateful to all of the doctors who got me through that crisis but they are as human as the patients so we need to take them off the pedestals and quit worshiping them. What they know is a microcosm of what still needs to be learned. What if medicine had stopped searching when penicillin was discovered and thought to be the miracle drug. Luckily I work in partnership with my primary care physician and we respect each other’s opinions. Culturelle worked miracles in my body and no doctor ever suggested it.

  • BetterinMentor

    parenteral nutrition was never approved by the FDA either and I bet your hospital uses that every day.

  • BetterinMentor

    The benefits my family and I have achieved since we started taking a daily probiotic supplement are numerous. Digestive issues gone. Colds don’t last as long and are not nearly as severe and are fewer in number.

  • SuzL

    All I know is I was able to get off Nexium after 2 years taking Mercola probiotics. They got my brother off Prilosec as well. I have recommended these to more people than I can even remember, all of whom found relief from many ailments. The proof is in the improved health!

  • bebe

    what a joke-talk to your provider. How many providers stay up on this type of information? I never would count on any of my providers for treatments that aren’t part of the pharma industry who spends tons of money convincing us all that we need their pills and concoctions. I think probiotics hold a lot of promise though I agree that there is a great deal of variability among them.

  • Kimmy

    Here we go again, more consumer confusion on what’s good or not good for us.

  • JBO812

    Talking to your doctor is a waste of time. Since they are not supported by big pharma, doctors don’t know anything about them. My doctor said he got a a lot of questions about probiotics and asked me what brand he should recommend.

  • Mgard

    i recently had a root canal. In the process, my infection blew up in a humongous way. Pain, swelling and discoloration. My endodontist asked if I was taking probiotics. I was taking 1-2 a day due to being on antiobiotics. He said he had a former patient whose infection just wouldn’t go away even though the root canal had been treated and finished. She went to a natural doctor who told her the probiotics were feeding the infection. She stopped the probiotic and the infection went away. It makes sense to me since probiotics are bacteria, but I know physicians do promote using them while on antibiotics. My endodontist recommended taking no more than one a day. I did and the infection gradually went away.