Everything You Need to Know About Probiotics

You may have read about a surefire solution to stomach pain and digestive problems: probiotics. But do these miracle microbes really work? Can probiotics truly help you lose weight and fight high blood pressure?

Whether you buy them in a bottle or the refrigerated section at your grocery store, probiotics may benefit your health — depending on key factors. Here’s everything you need to know about incorporating probiotics into your life, including one major myth about supplements you don’t want to fall for (page 9).

1. Myth: No bacteria can be good for you

Women Healthy eating

Probiotics are a trendy health topic. | DragonImages/iStock/ Getty Images Plus

  • Your body naturally has good bacteria.

When you hear the word “bacteria,” you might automatically assume we’re talking about germs. But not all bacteria cause harm. In fact, probiotics are the “good” bacteria that live in your digestive system. Probiotics help decrease the harmful bacteria in your system. Germs are often the cause of infection and inflammation in certain diseases and health conditions.

Next: Probiotics aren’t magic.

2. Myth: They can treat just about anything

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Keep your expectations healthy when it comes to gut health. | iStock.com/Thanmano

  • Don’t believe everything you hear about probiotics and chronic illness.

Probiotics aren’t cure-all solutions. An unhealthy gut can cause many problems, but there are other problems with the modern American diet besides a lack of fiber or good bacteria.

There’s some evidence that probiotics boost immunity and brain health in some people. They’re good organisms to have inside you. But they can’t treat everything, and shouldn’t substitute for a doctor’s visit.

Next: What is the best way to consume probiotics?

3. Myth: You have to take pills to get probiotics

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Probiotics come in many forms. | JulijaDmitrijeva/iStock/Getty Images

  • You can either take supplements or consume certain foods or drinks containing probiotics.

So how do you get the friendly bacteria into your body? It’s much simpler than it seems, as long as you follow professional recommendations you trust. Probiotics come in different forms; you can take a dietary supplement, drink certain beverages, or eat probiotic-rich foods.

Next: Don’t be afraid to “eat” more bacteria.

3. Myth: Probiotics aren’t natural

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Not all bacteria is bad. | Dr_Microbe/iStock/Getty Images

  • Some of us just don’t have enough of it.

Recent research discovered bacteria in babies’ systems before they were born. So it’s normal — and it’s our job to take care of the good bacteria we have. Probiotics help fight off the germs that make us sick. Your digestive health can tell you a lot about whether or not you’re doing all you can to stay healthy.

Next: Probiotics are beneficial for this common digestive problem.

4. Myth: They’ll make it difficult to go to the bathroom

Woman with stomach problem

Say goodbye to inflammation and diarrhea.  | Tharakorn/iStock/Getty Images

  • Probiotics can significantly improve your bathroom experience.

The key to a healthy digestive system is creating a balanced ecosystem of bacteria in your gut. Diarrhea, for example, offsets this balance. But probiotics can help to restore it. Research suggests probiotics can effectively treat both diarrhea and constipation. They populate your digestive system with bacteria that won’t cause inflammation or other problems.

Next: What is your gut trying to tell you?

5. Myth: Taking probiotics will upset your gut health

Man measuring his stomach for weight gain

Inflammation is a sign of poor gut health. | Ljupco/iStock/Getty Images

  • An imbalance of bacteria could cause inflammation and weight gain.

How does a gut imbalance happen? Theories include a lack of nutrients, antibiotic use, and a lack of fiber. Poor gut health can also increase your risk of developing certain diseases, though scientists aren’t sure by how much. But consuming probiotics can restore this balance.

Next: Some foods may have fewer probiotics than you think.

6. Myth: Many processed foods will provide you with adequate amounts of probiotics

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Some foods claim to have effective probiotics. | shironosov/iStock/Getty Images

  • Many bacteria can’t survive food processing.

Foods, such as certain dairy products, can contain probiotics, but they won’t have much — or any at all — if they’re highly processed. Various processing methods destroy live bacteria long before it makes it to grocery shelves. Yet another reason to cut back on processed foods in your diet.

Next: How to take care of the probiotics you use.

7. Myth: It doesn’t matter how you store your probioticsfood refrigerator

Keep things fresh. | totalpics/iStock/Getty Images

  • Always chill fermented foods and beverages to preserve the bacteria.

Bacteria are living organisms. Like humans, they only survive under certain conditions. If you don’t refrigerate your probiotic-filled yogurt, for example, the live cultures will die off. Follow the same rules you already use to decide which foods go in the fridge and which live in the pantry.

Next: Don’t waste your money on certain probiotics.

8. Myth: All probiotics are the same

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One supplement doesn’t cure all. | iStock.com/ areeya_ann

There are many products that contain probiotics, but their bacteria comes in different strains. You can’t expect to be able to treat every digestive issue with the same product: Different strains are known to treat different problems.

Some, such as L. acidophilus, can treat urinary tract infections. And even though B. animalis won’t cure your UII, it can help you recover from food poisoning.

Next: Not all supplements fulfill their promises.

9. Myth: Any probiotic supplement will be effective

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Don’t take supplements. | Txking/iStock/Getty Images

  • These supplements aren’t regulated as drugs.

In the United States, probiotic pills fall under the much larger dietary supplement umbrella. The Food and Drug Administration, therefore, treats them as foods instead of as drugs. This means a manufacturer can claim a product containing probiotics has significant health benefits, even when it doesn’t. You don’t want to spend your money on supplements that don’t work.

Next: These foods are the best to eat if you want to consume more probiotics.

10. Myth: Supplements are more effective than fermented foods

Kimchi in glass jar

Incorporate kimchee into your meals. | SilviaJansen/Getty Images

  • Eating more fermented cheeses, dark chocolate, and olives will introduce friendly bacteria into your digestive system.

There’s no guarantee a supplement — or even a certain food — will solve all your problems. But when it comes to probiotics, you can often trust the food, not the supplements. Other foods to incorporate into your diet include green peas, pickles, and tempeh.

Next: You might be able to say goodbye to this infection for good.

11. Myth: Good bacteria is only beneficial to your gut

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Image of the digestive system | ChrisChrisW/Getty Images

  • What if you never had to deal with a UTI again?

Probiotics are an excellent resource for improving your digestive health. They’re also important for vaginal health — though scientists aren’t quite sure why.

Some research suggests taking probiotics can prevent recurrent urinary tract infections. Most women who contract them are highly likely to have them again; maybe you don’t have to.

Next: You might benefit from probiotics if you have one of these diseases.

12. Myth: Probiotics won’t help if you have a chronic digestive disorder

A white pill in the palm of a human hand isolated on a white background. | iStock.com

  • Probiotics can help relieve symptoms of conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.

When your digestive tract undergoes significant stress, it can seem like you don’t have many relief options. Research suggests taking probiotics can help treat certain chronic digestive disorders. A doctor might suggest using them in tandem with other medical interventions.

People living with conditions such as Chron’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome might also benefit from probiotics, according to Harvard Health.

Next: You can eat these foods along with probiotics to make them more effective.

14. Myth: ‘Prebiotics’ and probiotics are the same thing

bacteria in culture medium plate

Prebiotics for your probiotics. | iStock.com/jarun011

  • Good bacteria need “food” too.

There is a reason a fiber-rich diet improves digestion — and yes, bacteria are involved. Your living, thriving gut bacteria need fuel just like you do. Prebiotics are fiber-containing foods that, in a sense, “feed” probiotic bacteria.

You can find prebiotics in food sources such as bananas, asparagus, onions, and oats.

Next: Never buy any probiotic without doing this first.

15. Myth: All probiotics are created the same

Medicine counter

Don’t be afraid to speak with experts. | Hybrid Images/Getty Images

  • You can always ask your doctor for recommendations and advice.

Not all foods and supplements contain the same types of probiotics. Investing in the “wrong” kind would not only prove ineffective — it could also cost more money then you can spare.

If you’re experiencing digestive problems and believe a probiotic could ease your symptoms, bring the issue up with your doctor. If you need to start taking probiotics, they can recommend the type and form that might successfully treat your specific condition.

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