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.

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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.

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

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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.

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.

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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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