Yes. Probiotics are incredibly important and effective. We know there are more bacteria in us and on us than our own human cells. The body is almost like a puppet—it is bacteria that really runs the show: They turn on enzymes, turn off genes, and dictate much of our health. We need them to break down nutrients, like copper and magnesium, so we can better absorb them. Interestingly, studies show that conditions like anxiety, depression, and weight gain can be transferred via fecal transplants (with mice), suggesting the broad impact bacteria has on health.
You know antibiotics can help fight off bacterial infections, but overusing them can actually deplete the good bacteria in your body, reports Harvard Medical School. (That's why doctors recommend you don't take antibiotics unless you really need them.) If you must go on meds, talk with your doctor about taking probiotics afterward, as the NCCIH says they can help recover beneficial microorganisms afterward and help keep the ratio of good to bad bacteria in balance.
A 2014 review by Cochrane—an independent network of experts who serve as rigorous arbiters of medical research—found that probiotics may be particularly useful in a hospital's neonatal intensive care unit. The addition of beneficial bacteria to a nutritional regimen seems to significantly reduce the likelihood of developing necrotizing enterocolitis, which is a devastating, poorly understood and often fatal gut disease that primarily afflicts preterm infants—especially the smallest and most premature among them. Researchers think that many cases of the disease begin with an opportunistic bacterial infection in the not yet fully developed intestine of an infant. As the illness progresses, gut tissue becomes increasingly inflamed and often starts to die, which can, in turn, rupture the intestine and flood the abdominal cavity with pathogenic microbes that proliferate to dangerous levels. Researchers estimate that 12 percent of preterm infants weighing less than 3.3 pounds will develop necrotizing enterocolitis and that 30 percent of them will not survive. Standard treatment involves a combination of antibiotics, feeding via intravenous tubes, and surgery to remove diseased and dead tissue. Probiotics probably prevent the disorder by boosting the numbers of beneficial bacteria, which may deter the harmful ones.
In the gastrointestinal tract L. Plantarum can help regulate immunity and control inflammation. A 2007 study found that the probiotic could suppress an inflammatory response in the gut. Perhaps most significantly, a double blind placebo-controlled study over 4 weeks concluded that L. Plantarum 299v provided effective symptom relief, especially of abdominal pain and bloating, in patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome .
In a food sensitivity, the immune reaction is delayed, usually several hours to days after the exposure. Food sensitivities are the most difficult to determine since there is not an immediate reaction. These kinds of issues with foods can cause a wide range of physical and mental problems. An elimination diet followed by reintroduction is one of the best ways to determine a food sensitivity.
"I usually recommend Garden of Life, BioK or Megafoods brand," says Shapiro. "I also recommend starting with about 30 billion CFU and making sure your supplement has at least 12 different strains. And if you don't eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains that provide fiber for the probiotics to live off of, make sure you're the one you are taking contains prebiotics as well.
Probiotics have direct and indirect effects on your immune system. They can help tip an imbalance in an immune response, such as in seasonal allergies, to a more balanced state. Probiotics benefits have direct and indirect effects on your nervous and endocrine systems, too, and are part of your enteric nervous system. They can influence every system in your body. The amount of probiotic pills and supplements shown to be beneficial in research for various conditions differs based on the population and condition studied, so no blanket recommendations can be made.
There is one Voluntary Certification Program by which a supplement manufacturer can choose to be evaluated. ConsumerLab.com (CL) is the leading provider of independent test results and information to help consumers and health-care professionals identify the best quality health and nutrition products. Products that have passed their testing for identity, strength, purity, and disintegration can print the CL Seal of Approval on their product. This is one step toward being confident that one is getting the amount and type of probiotic promised by the manufacturer.
More common than diarrhea is the opposite problem — constipation. In a search for studies on the benefits of probiotics in treating constipation, researchers found that probiotics slowed "gut transit time" by 12.4 hours, increases the number of weekly bowel movements by 1.3, and helped to soften stools, making them easier to pass. But the jury is still out on specific recommendations when it comes to the benefits of probiotics for constipation.
Some yogurts contain the aforementioned bacteria; however, because they are sensitive to oxygen, light, and dramatic temperature changes, make sure to look for yogurts with “live and active cultures.” Many commercial yogurts are heat-treated or pasteurized, resulting in the loss of these valuable cultures. Learn more about the smart way to shop for probiotics.
Until recently, testing of probiotics by ConsumerLab.com found that some products had far lower amounts of live organisms than claimed on the labels. But in 2018, it found that 17 out of 18 products tested contained the amounts listed; none exceeded limits for heavy metal contaminants. In contrast, in 2016, a study in Pediatric Research found that only one out of 16 Bifidobacterium longum supplements tested contained the species named on the label.
The bottom line: Stick to trusted whole food sources of probiotics if you don’t know a probiotic supplement brand you trust. “Kimchi, pickled beets, Greek yogurt and sauerkraut are great sources of probiotics. If you don’t like them, throw them into a food you do like, like a smoothie, and add your favorite fruit to help mask the flavor,” Taub-Dix says.
The second piece of research investigated whether patients should take probiotics to help the recovery of the natural gut bacteria after treatment with antibiotics. The evidence supporting this is not entirely clear and the FDA does not officially recommend it, but there are some reputable sources which discuss their use, such as this blog from Harvard Medical School. Research has suggested that up to 60% of healthcare professionals in the U.S. recommend taking probiotics, but is this justified and could it even be harmful?
Even for healthy people, there are uncertainties about the safety of probiotics. Because many research studies on probiotics haven’t looked closely at safety, there isn’t enough information right now to answer some safety questions. Most of our knowledge about safety comes from studies of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium; less is known about other probiotics. Information on the long-term safety of probiotics is limited, and safety may differ from one type of probiotic to another. For example, even though a National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)-funded study showed that a particular kind of Lactobacillus appears safe in healthy adults age 65 and older, this does not mean that all probiotics would necessarily be safe for people in this age group.
The other thing to remember is that these microorganisms are not all created equally. In fact, the genus, strain, and species all need to be the same for the results that found in the study to be the results that one hopes to achieve when taking it. For example, with the strain Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, the genus is Lactobacillus, the species is rhamnosus, and the strain is GG. If any one of those is different in your supplement, you may not attain the same results.
If you decide to use a probiotic supplement and get clearance from your doctor for doing so, be sure to read the label carefully. You want to be sure that the supplement contains live strains of the bacteria or yeast, and that the life of these strains is guaranteed at the time of use, and not at the time of manufacture. Other points of comparison are the number of bacteria strains and the number of colony-forming units, although this does not necessarily guarantee results.
Better Health Review ranks Ultimate Flora as the most effective probiotic supplement. It contains 30 billion active bifidobacteria for colon health, and 20 billion lactobacilli and lactococcus cultures for the small intestine. According to Better Health Review, it contains all natural ingredients. It earns a perfect 5 score from Better Health Review, and the magazine “Vitamin Retailer” voted it best two years in a row.