This article was last updated on July 7, 2020.
Scientists are just now beginning to recognize the importance of the trillions of good and bad microorganisms that dwell inside us, and their relationship to human health and disease.
Collectively, these microorganisms are called the gut microbiota, or gut microbiome. Some researchers are calling it the new frontier of medicine.
“Bacteria in the gut is important to your overall health; we know that. Yet, it’s complex, and much of it isn’t understood,” says Dr. Tim Gutshall, vice president and chief medical officer at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield.
“Bacteria line your entire digestive system, mostly in the intestines and colon. We know they play a key role in breaking down nutrients, preventing infections and producing certain vitamins,” says Gutshall. “But there’s more. Preliminary research suggests gut bacteria may help prevent or treat some diseases. They may be involved in the development of colorectal cancer, obesity and diabetes.”
How do probiotics work?
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts External Site that are often called “good” bacteria, because they help keep your digestive system healthy. You can find them in supplements and some probiotic foods, like yogurt. When you lose "good" bacteria in your body, for example, after you take antibiotics, probiotics could help balance your "good" and "bad" bacteria to keep your body working the way it should.
However, to be sold as a probiotic supplement in the United States, a live microorganism does not require evidence of effectiveness or safety.
Should you take a probiotic supplement?
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), some probiotics may help to prevent diarrhea that's caused by infections or antibiotics. They may also help with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. However, the benefits are not conclusive and not all probiotics have the same effects.
The latest research says to hold off on taking probiotic supplements, unless directed to do so by your health care provider. “There is simply so much that we don’t know yet,” says Gutshall. “You could do more harm than good by adding probiotics to the mix.”
“If you’re considering a probiotic dietary supplement, consult your health care provider first,” says Gutshall. “This is especially important if you have other health problems.”
A few facts about probiotic supplements
Probiotic supplements are not only used to keep the digestive system running smoothly, they also claim other health benefits, from boosting the immune system, improving certain mental health conditions, and contributing to weight loss.
- Between 2002 and 2012, use of probiotic supplements more than doubled in the United States.
- Consumption is highest among college-educated adults, with 3.5 percent reporting the use of probiotic supplements External Site within the past 30 days.
- There are no large, long-term clinical trials External Site that prove probiotics offer clinical benefits for people who are already healthy.
It's important to remember that different probiotics External Site have different effects. If one probioitic helps your digestive system, for example, it might have no effect on another issue you're experiencing. Before you start taking a probioitic supplement, talk to your personal doctor to make sure you are taking the one that'll benefit you most.
Three things you can do to balance your gut bacteria
Eat a healthy, balanced, high-fiber diet
The bacteria that live inside us are there because of what we eat, and the best way to promote lasting change is to alter their food source — our diets. Recent studies show fiber plays a key role in the types of bacteria that thrive in the gut.
Do not overuse antibiotics
While antibiotics are life-saving drugs, they reduce good gut bacteria, and can cause antibiotic resistance.
Keep in mind:
- Antibiotics only treat bacterial infections, not viruses like the common cold.
- Green-colored mucus is not a sign that an antibiotic is needed.
- There are potential risks when taking any prescription drug.
- Improper use of antibiotics causes side effects.
- Long term use reduces their effectiveness.
“If your doctor prescribes an antibiotic, ask what is the shortest treatment course and whether there are alternative methods,” says Gutshall. “When taking the antibiotic, always follow dosing instructions and take for the amount of time prescribed by your doctor.”
Try fermented foods
Some early research suggests that the bacteria found in naturally fermented foods may promote gut health by increasing the number of beneficial bacteria. Here are a few options:
- Sauerkraut. A shredded cabbage that has been fermented by lactic acid bacteria.
- Pickles. Baby cucumbers that are pickled in salt-water mixture and fermented. Just make sure they are salted gherkins. Pickles made using vinegar do not have probiotics effects.
- Miso. A soup ingredient made with fermented soybeans, barley or rice malt.
- Yogurt. Made from milk fermented by added bacteria, known as yogurt cultures. Look for yogurts that carry the National Yogurt Association’s (NYA) “Live and Active Culture” seal. Be sure to watch out for added sugars. Try this recipe for fruit wands with strawberry cheesecake dip.
- Kombucha. A carbonated tea made by fermenting sweet tea with a culture of yeast and bacteria.
- Kefir. A cultured, fermented beverage that tastes like a yogurt-based drink.
- Tempeh. Made from fermented soybeans, tempeh is formed into a firm patty, and has an earthy taste, similar to a mushroom.
- Apple cider vinegar. Made by fermenting apples, you can add it to salads, drinks, and recipes.
- Kimchi. A fermented, spicy Korean side dish made with cabbage and other vegetables.
- Health.harvard.edu — Can gut bacteria improve your health? External Site
- WebMD.com — Probiotics: Don't Believe the Hype? External Site
- WebMD.com — Could Fermented Foods Boost Your Health? External Site
- WebMD.com — What Your Gut Bacteria Say About You External Site
- WebMD.com — Enlisting Gut Bacteria And Fiber To Fight Diabetes External Site
- Natap.org — Probiotic Safety - No Guarantees Opens PDF