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  • Writer's pictureMarissa Mekelburg MS, RDN, CLT, HHP

Probiotics 101: What Are They and Do You Need Supplements?

What do yogurt, sauerkraut, and kombucha all have in common? They’re all sources of living critters called probiotics…and they can boost your health!


If you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may be considering taking probiotics to help ease your symptoms. But what exactly are probiotics and do you need to take them? Keep reading to find out.


In this blog post, I’ll be walking you through probiotics 101: what they are, what foods and drinks you can incorporate into your usual routine, and how these habits may boost your overall health.


New around here? Welcome! I’m Marissa, digestive health registered dietitian. I help clients improve their health through personalized nutrition and lifestyle programs based on functional nutrition and a "food as medicine" approach.


Let’s begin this article with a quick overview of what probiotics actually are.



 A small white dish of yogurt topped with a single strawberry



Introduction to probiotics


So what are these little critters?


Probiotics are living microorganisms that have health benefits when consumed. Some probiotics are bacteria, others are fungi.


While we might think about bacteria as being “bad” or something to squash with a dose of Purell, not all bacteria cause disease. In fact, many probiotics have very important health benefits.


In your digestive system, there is an entire ecosystem of living organisms that work with you. You may have heard the term “microbiome” and that’s exactly what we’re talking about here.


When things are going well, these little members of your microbiome help to digest your food, nourish your digestive tract, send and receive messages to your brain and even bolster your immune system.


…if your community is out of balance, the ripple effect can be substantial. Just like a thriving city needs trash collectors, school teachers, and a librarian, your microbiome needs the right balance of different kinds of probiotics.


When things get out of whack, whether because of an illness, medication, or lifestyle habit, your microbiome can suffer and in turn, you may have a variety of symptoms.


How do we cultivate our microbiome? It begins when we are born!


Our microbiome


We start building our microbiome at birth; and your microbiome will be different based on how you were born, what you were fed, and if you ever had medications, such as antibiotics (1).


As adults, everything from our usual dietary choices, exposure to pathogens (the bad guys), our usual physical activity, stress levels, and our medications influence what kinds of organisms are in our microbiome.


We can continue to cultivate a healthy microbiome by having a high-fiber diet (the bacteria digest the fiber) and by eating foods that contain probiotics; this is kind of like planting fresh seeds in your garden to keep the garden healthy and thriving.



Where do we get probiotics?


We can get probiotics from certain foods, drinks, and supplements (2, 3).


Foods that contain probiotics include:


● Yogurt

● Kefir

● Kombucha

● Sauerkraut

● Fermented pickles

● Kimchi

● Tempeh


Note: not all of these products have the live probiotics in them. Pasteurized products are heated to kill the kinds of bacteria that can cause illness, but the process kills all organisms, including healthy probiotics. An exception to that is yogurt made with pasteurized milk; the milk is free from potentially harmful bugs and is then inoculated with the probiotics that turn the milk into yogurt.


In addition to incorporating food sources of probiotics, you can also consider taking supplements.



Probiotic supplements


There are many, many different kinds of probiotic supplements. If you think about probiotics like a zoo, there are elephants, alligators, and flamingos (not to mention, lions, tigers, and bears - oh my). Certain probiotic strains are known to help with specific health goals and conditions; anything from reducing anxiety to treating diarrhea (4, 5).


Common categories of probiotics include:


● Lactobacillus

● Bifidobacterium

● Yeast

● Spore based


In order to have the best possible outcome with your unique goals, you have to pick


1) the right kind

2) the right dose


If we continue with our zoo analogy, your symptoms might not get better if you’re taking a dose of 12 elephants when what you actually need is 50 flamingos.


As for my clients, many of them are seeking relief from their digestive symptoms. Let’s talk about those potential benefits now.



Probiotics and their benefits for gut health


Probiotics are beneficial microorganisms that can improve gut health. When included in the daily diet, probiotics play a key role in aiding digestion, alleviating symptoms related to gastrointestinal issues such as bloating and gas, and restoring balance to the microflora in the gut.


Studies have also shown that probiotics provide an array of other health benefits including improved immunity, reduced risk for certain chronic illnesses, and better mental health.


Through complex metabolic machinery powered by probiotic bacteria, toxins and pathogens can be neutralized while inflammation is downregulated–resulting in improved gastrointestinal health and a happy gut!


Taking probiotics regularly is a simple and often effective way to stay healthy from the inside out. I recommend working with a registered dietitian to find the best-matched probiotics for your needs and goals.


But I also recommend keeping in mind that probiotic supplements are not the only factor in the overall health of your microbiome. If your microbiome has gotten out of balance, it is important to get curious about why it happened so that you can address those root causes.



a person holding a probiotic capsule in their hand.

Photo by Daily Nouri on Unsplash




Do you need to take a probiotic supplement?


Probiotic supplementation has become increasingly popular in recent years as more people seek to take proactive steps to improve their overall health and wellness (6).

While there are certainly benefits associated with opting for daily probiotics, it is important to remember that a varied diet rich in plant-based foods will already contain natural probiotics that can help maintain your gut microbiome.


Therefore, if you have no known digestive problems, probiotic supplementation may not be necessary. However, for those who are dealing with specific digestion issues, probiotic supplementation may provide considerable relief. If you are uncertain whether or not you need this additional support, consulting a healthcare professional is

recommended.



Are there any risks of taking probiotics?


There may be certain risks related to taking probiotics. Supplements are not regulated, so one risk is that you choose a product that isn’t high quality. Perhaps there are not as many probiotics present or maybe the supplement is contaminated. It is important to be an informed consumer so that you’re able to pick a high-quality product.


Additionally, probiotics can interact with medications; therefore it is best to discuss their use with your doctor prior to consuming any supplements.


And lastly, there can be an acclimation period with taking probiotics. It is common to experience some gas and bloating as your digestive tract adjusts to the new community members, but this tends to settle out over time.


Nevertheless, when consumed correctly probiotics have been found to offer numerous health advantages and thus can be beneficial for many individuals.



How to choose a quality probiotic?


Choosing a quality probiotic supplement requires doing some research and due diligence.


Before buying, read the label carefully to determine the type of probiotic strain it contains as well as how many billions of CFUs (colony-forming units) it provides per daily serving. Consider looking for one that provides multiple strains, as different strains offer different benefits.


Additionally, look for supplements in a delayed-release capsule form: these are designed to help protect beneficial bacteria traveling through the digestive system.

Finally, be sure to follow the recommendations for proper storage. Most lactobacillus and bifido strains will require refrigeration while for example, spore based products won’t. Refrigerating helps ensure that the fragile strains of probiotics remain viable and active upon consumption.



Key takeaways


Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help keep your gut healthy. They work by crowding out bad bacteria, improving the barrier function of the intestine, reducing inflammation, and enhancing immunity.


You can get probiotics from fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir. You can also take a probiotic supplement. When choosing a probiotic supplement, look for one that contains multiple strains of live bacteria, has been refrigerated (if needed) to ensure potency, and is third-party tested for quality.


If you’re ready to have an expert guide to optimizing your gut health and digestion, I'm ready to help! You can use this link to schedule an intial visit; we’ll discuss your health history and goals and explore how I can help you finally feel better.


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