Lately, there has been a lot of buzz about probiotics. They have been touted as therapeutic for a variety of digestive problems. If you are wondering, “Are there really health benefits to taking probiotics?”, you are not alone.

The benefits of probiotics for various diseases are still in the explorative stage. There is not enough data to say definitively that probiotics help. Researchers are still trying to fully understand the health benefits.

In simple terms, probiotics are “friendly bacteria” that help restore or enhance the gut microbiome. The microbiome is the micro-ecosystem of trillions of organisms (microbiota) in your gut and every surface of your body. This includes bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Each person has a unique network of microbiota.

The organisms that exist in the microbiome are in two classes – helpful and potentially harmful. Most are helpful and symbiotic, meaning there is a beneficial relationship for both the human body and organisms. A small number promote disease. In a healthy body, both types of organisms (symbiotics and those causing disease) coexist peacefully without problems. Illnesses, medications such as antibiotics, and certain diets can disrupt this peaceful existence. The key to being healthier is to nourish the balance among both classes of bacteria in the gut. The gut mostly consists of bacteria.

woman eating yogurt

Probiotics help to:

  • Replenish normal bacteria in the gut
  • Suppress the growth of bugs that are potentially harmful
  • Improve the gut-barrier function
  • Modulate the immune system by suppressing proinflammatory substances
  • Modulate pain perception

Pills containing probiotics are taken by some people believing that these will help keep them healthy. While a few studies have shown that probiotic pills might improve health, other studies demonstrate no benefit. Though more research is needed, the evidence does show that probiotics may: 

  • Improve Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) symptoms 
  • Help reduce allergies 
  • Help reduce inflammation 
  • Help fight or prevent infections in the stomach and intestines caused by antibiotics

Should I take probiotic pills?

You should not take probiotic pills without first talking to your doctor. You could get sick from using probiotics if you have a condition or medication that suppresses your immunity.  

Probiotics are dietary supplements. The US (United States) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not monitor manufactured supplements as they do with standard medications.

Foods that contain probiotics

Good sources of probiotics are fermented foods and beverages containing live bacteria. The list includes yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi (Korean fermented cabbage dish), miso, pickles, traditional buttermilk, and certain types of cheese, such as gouda, mozzarella, and cheddar.

Probiotic pill

Things to consider before taking probiotic pills

  • Talk to your doctor to find the right strain(s) for your individual needs. Probiotic’s potential benefits are broad, and there is no one-size-fits-all product. 
  • Choose the product that explicitly shows the ”sell-by” date. 
  • Some probiotics need to be refrigerated. Be sure to follow the storage instructions to maintain the effectiveness of the probiotic over time. 
  • In the first few days after taking probiotics, you may experience loose stools which will go away. Taking probiotics at the end of the meal may help reduce symptoms. 

Below is a list of gastrointestinal disorders and various probiotic supplements that may be helpful. Your doctor knows your condition best and must give you final approval prior to taking probiotics for any condition.

Gastrointestinal DisorderProbioticsBenefits
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBD)Bifidobacterium infantis, Saccharomyces boulardii, Lactobacillus PlantarumReduce sensation of bloating
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)E. coli Nissle, and a mixture of the strains of Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and StreptococcusLessen the inflammation
Infectious DiarrheaLactobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus caseiHelpful in managing diarrhea caused by rotavirus
Infectious DiarrheaMany strains of Lactobacillus and a strain of the yeast Saccharomyces boulardiiShorten the course of diarrhea
Antibiotic-Related DiarrheaSaccharomyces boulardiiPrevent C.difficile infection

Though probiotics have shown promise for some conditions, much remains to be learned. Always consult with your healthcare provider first if you are considering taking a probiotic dietary supplement.