Can Probiotics Hurt You? Everything You Should Know Before Buying

Have you ever taken a probiotic to relieve an upset stomach? You’re not the only one. Like most dietary supplements on the market, probiotic supplements make a lot of health claims. But as we’ve seen with products such as fish oil supplements, these claims don’t always reflect reality.

Even more concerning are the possible safety risks associated with taking probiotics when you have a healthy digestive system.

What does the research have to say about the safety and benefits of probiotics? The answers might surprise you.

What are probiotics?

Yogurt

Yogurt | Fortyforks/iStock/Getty Images

If a doctor has ever suggested you eat a few servings of yogurt after taking an antibiotic, there’s a reason why. Your gut is filled with all kinds of bacteria that help digest food and fight off germs, keeping your immune system in check. You might classify these as “good” and “bad” bacteria.

Probiotics are the “good” bacteria that are best known for their role in digestive health and immunity. An imbalance of microbes in your gut — too many “bad” organisms — can cause unpleasant digestive issues such as diarrhea.

Good bacteria can restore the balance to your microbiome — even if you aren’t taking antibiotics. Many people, therefore, turn to probiotic supplements — dietary supplements that contain good bacteria — to relieve digestive distress, including symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea, and others.

Some doctors aren’t sure if this practice is worth it.

Are probiotics safe?

The biggest problem with probiotic supplements is that dietary supplements are regulated by the FDA as foods, not drugs. They don’t monitor the quality of these supplements and can’t verify what’s actually in them despite what their manufacturers claim they contain.

Mostly, this means that a low-quality probiotic supplement you get from a health food store might claim it contains probiotic bacteria when it actually doesn’t. That’s not necessarily dangerous — just a waste of your money.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer to the question of probiotic safety. Research on the effects of probiotics often haven’t even mentioned any negative side effects participants might have experienced. This does not mean there aren’t any.

A lack of reporting on safety might suggest that many of the studies conducted on the benefits of probiotics are funded by probiotic manufacturers. Publishing studies praising a product’s benefits helps companies sell more products, regardless of possible risks. There’s still a lot we don’t know. And without safety data, the FDA won’t fund clinical trials — you can’t have someone take a supplement that might harm them.

Some reports have mentioned people contracting serious infections from taking probiotic supplements. People with compromised immune systems are advised to avoid these supplements.

It’s strongly recommended that you speak with your doctor or pharmacist before you start taking probiotics. They can give you a clearer picture not only of how safe these supplements are for you personally, but also whether or not they might improve your health.

Do probiotics have health benefits?

Feta cheese

Feta cheese | Mizina/iStock/Getty Images

Many people have started using probiotic supplements to fight disease. This is because good bacteria exists in your gut to prevent “bad” bacteria from causing infections.

Health experts don’t usually recommend that healthy people take probiotic supplements. There isn’t much evidence that supports the claim that they actually relieve symptoms related to digestive problems.

But that doesn’t mean good bacteria can’t be beneficial for some people. Some early research suggests that they can improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. But if you’re taking a supplement, it depends on the strain of bacteria it contains. And it isn’t guaranteed to work.

Supplements aren’t the only way to “feed” your gut with beneficial bacteria, though. You can also keep your gut healthy by eating certain foods.

Probiotic foods: Best foods for gut health

Want more probiotics in your diet? You can always benefit from the following foods even if you don’t need to balance out your gut bacteria:

  • Yogurt with live or active cultures
  • Tempeh
  • Kimchi (a fermented Korean side dish)
  • Pickles
  • Cheese with live or active cultures
  • Green peas and olives
  • Sourdough bread
  • Miso

Of course, many of these foods provide health benefits beyond your gut health. Yogurt and cheese contain protein and essential vitamins and minerals, for example. Tempeh, a plant-based protein, can also serve as a healthy source of protein for those who do not eat meat.