Who Should Be Taking Probiotics?

woman eating yogurt with fruit
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Bacteria in food might not sound like a good thing, but when it comes to probiotics it is. Probiotics are live organisms, mostly bacteria or yeasts, that are helpful for your health. They live in your gut and intestines and are linked to a host of health benefits from preventing disease to treating gastrointestinal distress and mood disorders. Take a look at probiotics: what they are, what they do and who should take them.

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are "good microorganisms" that are similar to the beneficial bacteria in your gut. Taking them as a supplement or in food can help to promote a good balance of helpful bacteria in your system.

Some of the most common probiotics are in the Lactobacillus family or the Bifidobacterium family:

  • L. acidophilus
  • L. casei
  • L. rhamnosus
  • L. bulgaricus
  • L. plantarum
  • L. helveticus
  • B. bifidum
  • B. longum
  • B. breve
  • B. infantis

When studies are done on probiotics, they specify strains and doses, so look into literature and talking to your doctor can help you find the right type of probiotic for you.

Benefits 

There are many reasons someone may want to take probiotics, as they are used both to treat problems and to prevent others. Some uses of probiotics are becoming quite established, such as in restoring beneficial bacteria to your microbiome after a dose of antibiotics; or taking them to treat diarrhea.

Other areas of research are still underway but show promise in preventing or treating a variety of conditions, including:

  • Lactose intolerance
  • Helicobacter pylori (the bacteria that causes ulcers)
  • High blood pressure
  • Yeast infections
  • High cholesterol
  • Constipation
  • Irritable bowel syndrome and colitis
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Colon cancer
  • Infections due to a weakened immune system

Probiotics may also contribute to healthy aging by improving immune function.

How Are Probiotics Taken?

Probiotics can be taken several ways, including:

  • In yogurt or food: Eating yogurt is the primary way that people are exposed to probiotics. They can also be found in kefir (a yogurt-type drink), buttermilk and fermented food, such as kimchi or sauerkraut. Compared to other forms of probiotics, these foods provide a relatively low concentration of organisms.
  • As a powder: There are also powders that are comprised of probiotics (mixed with a filler) that can be mixed into liquids or food and consumed. Many of these need to be refrigerated.
  • In capsule form: It is common to find some probiotics (especially Lactobacillus acidophilus or Bifidobacterium bifidus) in capsule form. Many of these need to be refrigerated.
  • In "pearl" form: Looking much like very small, round pills, probiotic "pearls" are coated so that they pass through your stomach and dissolve once they are in your intestinal tract. This is supposed to be important, as stomach acid can kill the majority of the helpful microorganisms before they get to the intestines, where they can really work.

Who Should Not Take Probiotics?

If you are on any type of immunosuppressant medication or are immunosuppressed (if you have HIV, for instance), you will want to ask your doctor about probiotics before you take them in any form. There don't seem to be any documented drug interactions with probiotics.

The Bottom Line

As far as I can tell, probiotics have lots of potential benefits and very few drawbacks, though more research still needs to be done. I will consider adding them to my regimen, especially during those times when I am prescribed antibiotics or am experiencing any sort of digestive problems.

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Article Sources

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Additional Reading

  • National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Probiotics: In Depth.

  • Iannitti T, Palmieri B. Therapeutical use of probiotic formulations in clinical practice. Clin Nutr. 2010 Jun 22. [Epub ahead of print]