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Probiotics: Why You Need Them

Sep 28 2020
5 min read
close-up of bowl of yogurt with banana and granola on top

On the road to good health, it’s important to make sure your intestines are paved with good bacteria.

You see, your gastrointestinal (GI) tract is an ecosystem of good and bad bacteria, amounting to one hundred trillion individual microorganisms. Ideally, the ratio of friendly to unfriendly bacteria should be 85 percent to 15 percent. Probiotics are the healthy bacteria and yeasts found in some foods and specialty supplements, which can help promote that balance. So, what else can probiotics do for you?

Fuel a Healthy Bowel

Probiotics work to digest some types of fiber and produce small fat molecules, known as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) as a byproduct. SCFAs are a primary source of fuel for the cells that line the bowel.

Help You Stay Well-nourished

Probiotics form a barrier on your intestine’s lining that protects against pathogens and toxins, while allowing all the goodness in your food to pass through and be absorbed by your body. Without this gut barrier, bad bacteria can set up shop, keeping nutrients out and allowing toxins and other enemies to enter your bloodstream.

Prevent Uncomfortable GI Issues and More

Once levels of good bacteria dip, the harmful type can take over and give off their own toxins. This might cause GI issues like bloating and constipation, as well as other concerns, such as eczema, fatigue, and joint pain. Some research indicates that an overgrowth of bad bacteria can sometimes lead to irritable bowel syndrome.

Promote a Healthy Immune System

The most effective immune system, of which the gut is a major part, is one that’s kept quiet until it’s truly needed to spring into action. Recent research on probiotics indicates that they decrease inflammation, a powerful force that can keep your body on high-alert unnecessarily — as well as contribute to a variety of health issues.

Help Fend Off Disease

Good bacteria have the ability to “talk” to each other and your immune system. In doing so, they can help turn on disease-fighting genes or suppress those that can cause us health troubles. For example, having a preponderance of good bacteria may combat harmful microorganisms and prevent genetic mutations that lead to colon cancer.

Do You Need More Probiotics

Chances are good that the answer is yes. Most people — even those consuming healthy diets — simply don’t get enough probiotics on their own and can benefit from more, especially if they have any inflammation. Though there are urine and stool tests that can check the balance of your bacteria, your doctor or nutritionist may recommend probiotics for you without ordering them; these tests are costly and typically not covered by insurance.

It’s generally safe to try increasing probiotics in your diet on your own, too. There are hundreds of types of probiotics, but the most common ones are lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. You can find one or both of these in fermented dairy products like kefir, yogurt, and soft cheeses (check labels to confirm), kombucha (a fermented tea), kimchi, miso, raw sauerkraut, and tempeh. Try including at least one in your diet on a daily basis.

Another way to boost your levels of good bacteria is to eat foods containing prebiotics — a type of carbohydrate your good bacteria like to feed on for fuel. These are found in the fiber of plant foods. Asparagus, bananas, carrots, chicory, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, most fruits, onions, shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes, and turmeric (the spice in curry) are great sources.

Despite making dietary changes, there’s often still a gap in most people’s diets, which supplements can help bridge. A broad-spectrum probiotic with 10 to 12 different species of bacteria is best, as is one with colony-forming units (CFUs) in the billions. Recommendations vary depending on your health status, so talk to an integrative physician or nutritionist about which brands, strains, and doses may be best for you.

Supplements are particularly useful while and after you take antibiotics, as they can help replace good bacteria that has been killed off and reduce the risk of antibiotic-related diarrhea. To ensure your supplement is most effective, take it at a different time than your medication. Continue the probiotic supplements for two months after finishing your course of antibiotics, or follow your doctor’s recommendation.