You've likely heard about the many benefits of taking probiotics, but maybe you're still not sure whether the supposed pros are hype or health facts. Here's the simplified scoop on the science behind probiotics, what these "good bacteria" really are, and how best to consume them.
Health Benefits of Taking Probiotics
Though they are bacteria, probiotics aren't the same as the disease-causing invaders you try to wipe out with antibiotics. Instead, probiotics provide the body benefits galore. These good gut bacteria colonize the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and stop bad actors from taking root. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Harvard Medical School, taking probiotics can potentially reduce or prevent certain health issues, such as:
- Atopic dermatitis
- Antibiotic-associated diarrhea
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- High cholesterol
- Ulcerative colitis
- Crohn's disease
- H. pylori
- Some vaginal infections
- Urinary tract infections
What Are Probiotics?
Unlike other ingredients you eat or dink, probiotics are actual living microorganisms. According to the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics, the most current accepted definition is "live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host."
Popular, commercially available probiotic strains include the genus Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces, and Bacillus, according to the NIH. Different types of bacteria may have varying effects on the body. Before you decide to take a probiotic, you'll need to learn more about the benefits these specific bacteria provide.
Sources of Probiotics
Where can you get this beneficial bacteria? Probiotics are found in some fermented foods—most notably yogurt. Other fermented foods, including cheese, kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, miso, and pickles, do contain live bacterial cultures, but the NIH notes that these cultures aren't usually proven probiotic microorganisms.
Some non-fermented foods, such as juice, milk, smoothies, cereal, and even baby formula, may have added "good bacteria." Think of these as foods enriched with microorganisms and not naturally occurring bacterial sources.
If you don't want to add probiotic-rich picks to your main menu or don't like the taste of fermented foods, you can also get the live cultures in dietary supplements. These include capsules, liquids, pills, and powders. Always consult your health care provider before taking any supplement or making changes to your diet.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Are probiotics and prebiotics the same? Even though the names sound similar, prebiotics aren't microorganisms. Prebiotics can improve GI health by helping promote the good bacteria, but they do not contain actual live cultures, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Prebiotics typically come from different sources than probiotics, meaning that you'll need to eat or take the two together. Fruits, veggies, and whole grains all contain prebiotics, and they come as dietary supplements, as well.
Are probiotics and prebiotics right for you? Again, talk to your medical provider first. Even though probiotics have known benefits, your doctor or other licensed medical professional should help you choose whether supplements or a probiotic-rich diet is right for your individual health needs.
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Why It's Good
The benefits of probiotics are more than just hype. From improving GI health to reducing dermatitis, these beneficial bacteria have plenty of pluses, according to science.