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What You Must Know About Probiotics

By Elizabeth Herrin, MS, RD, LD

Over the past few years, many of us have become more aware of how our gut bacteria interact with the rest of our body to keep us healthy. Gut bacteria seems to be the go-to culprit for all things going wrong in our bodies – from gastrointestinal symptoms to weight management to even our moods. So, what is a probiotic, and what is the role of a probiotic in maintaining good gut health?

A probiotic is live bacteria that are the same strains as the “good” bacteria in our large intestine that help our gut maintain balance of its functions. These so-called “good” bacteria are necessary for a variety of bodily functions like digesting food, controlling “bad” bacteria that can cause infections, and even helping to create vitamins. 1

Another thing that can help maintain healthy gut bacteria is what is known as prebiotics. A prebiotic consists of certain forms of fiber or plant carbohydrate that helps to feed good gut bacteria already present in your body. Prebiotics are essentially the food and supplies that help good bacteria campsites stay open in your gut. You can get prebiotics through foods, like fruits and vegetables, or through a supplement that contains both pre- and pro-biotics.

Next, let’s differentiate between supplemental probiotics and naturally occurring probiotics. Supplemental probiotics are manufactured supplements typically in the form of an enteric-coated pill. They are designed to release the bacteria into the intestines. Special attention is paid to the specific bacteria strains and concentration included in the supplement. This can result in more controlled dosing, although it is important to note that the FDA does not oversee supplement manufacturing, and therefore the companies are not required to provide proof of their contents, though many of them are verified through third-party companies. In contrast, a naturally occurring probiotic happens when food is fermented, resulting in high concentrations of “good” bacteria strains. Think yogurt, kimchi, or sauerkraut. These foods naturally contain “good” gut bacteria.

So, is it better to get probiotics naturally from food, or from a supplement? Well, a review article published in Critical Food Science and Nutrition in 2016 found that both foods and supplements are efficient carriers of probiotics into our guts 2 . An advantage to naturally occurring probiotics is that they are generally in otherwise health foods that provide other important nutrients. Supplement probiotics can be more convenient.

When should you take a probiotic? Some people choose to take a daily probiotic supplement or regularly incorporate probiotic foods into their diet. This ensures that their gut bacteria stay balanced and prevents issues associated with dysbiosis (dysregulation of gut bacteria). However, there are some times that it can be more helpful to include probiotics: after a round of antibiotics for an infection or when experiencing GI symptoms like gas, bloating, or diarrhea. Probiotics are generally not recommended for immunocompromised people due to risk of infection, but they are otherwise considered very safe.

Have more probiotic questions? Do you want to optimize your gut health? Schedule a session with our dietitian!