For most of my life, I thought of probiotics as something I’d only drink if I lost a bet. Then stress-induced irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) turned my intestinal tract into a nonstop river of shit—we’re talking weeks of everything I ate shooting straight out my butt in liquid form. The internet said probiotics were my best non-pharmaceutical bet to help my digestive system calm down, so I swallowed my pride (and my first kombucha ever) and kinda sorta saw the light. My IBS wasn’t cured, but probiotics did help me spend less time on the toilet wide-eyed with terror, and more time doing what’s really important in life—watching TV with my family.
To avoid those and other problems, I strongly recommend buying a professional brand from a reputable health care professional or other vendor who stands by their products and undergoes third-party testing. Some of these professional brands have created advanced technology that preserves a probiotic supplement’s survival on the shelf and in your gut.
According to the NIH, probiotic supplements contain many microorganisms that are the same as or similar to the ones that naturally live in your body, but there's still a lot of research to be done on probiotics and how they work. It's important to keep in mind that not all probiotics have the same effects and that taking probiotics isn't a guarantee of better health. And while they're generally safe for healthy people to take, with side effects being limited to mild digestive discomfort, they could interact with certain medications or pose health risks to people with underlying medical problems — that's why it's smart to talk to your doctor before getting started with a supplement.
Dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD, also points out the key role probiotics play in gut health and your body's immune system. "Probiotics are live microorganisms that may be able to help prevent and treat some illnesses," explains Engelman. "Probiotics can create 'holes' in bad bacteria and kill them. Similar to the way antibiotics work in the treatment of acne and rosacea, probiotics can help fight harmful bugs from triggering inflammation. In patients with acne and rosacea, living microorganisms on the skin are recognized as foreign by the body's immune system. The immune system springs into action to counter this potential threat resulting in the inflammation, redness, or bumps common in these skin conditions."
Sugar is so easily accessible in Westernized cultures that it is easy to overindulge in it. But why do you crave it? There are several reasons. One, sugar usually means sucrose, which is composed of glucose and fructose. Glucose is the sugar in your blood, so consumption of sugar results in a temporary boost of energy. However, that blood-sugar spike causes insulin to be released to usher the sugar into cells for energy or fat storage, and shortly afterward your blood sugar drops. So then you feel a slump and reach for something to bring your blood sugar back up: more sugar.
Unless you know that your body is lacking in a particular type of probiotic, you should just look for broad-spectrum probiotics that contain a mix of different strains of bacteria, Warren says: "We have billions of bacteria in our gut, so by taking a supplement with a range of different strains, you will ensure you are not overdoing or missing one type." Keatley also stresses the importance of finding a supplement with a diversity of bacteria strains to keep overgrowth of any one strain in check. "Providing too much of an advantage to one strain of probiotic may push out another strain we didn't know was important until it's too late," she points out.
We have to give a nod to the most famous probiotic food: yogurt. Whether you love Greek or regular, low-fat or full-fat, look for the phrase "live active cultures" on the label. And although choosing a plain yogurt has less added sugar than the flavored kinds, Tallmadge gives you the okay to choose a fruit-infused flavor if that's the only way you'll eat it. Just be sure to aim for fewer than 15 grams of the sweet stuff per serving; sugar can feed the bad bugs in your gut.
A popular dish in Japan consisting of fermented soybeans, natto contains the extremely powerful probiotic bacillus subtilis, which has been proven to bolster your immune system, support cardiovascular health and enhance digestion of vitamin K2. Natto can also contain vitamin B12, which is usually lacking in vegan diets. It’s also one of the highest plant-based proteins.