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Should you try probiotics?

Probiotics are common on pharmacy and grocery store shelves, but do you know how they can improve your digestive health?

These supplements may not benefit everyone, cautions Piedmont family medicine physician Joel Garrison, D.O. Some people, however, find that probiotics help regulate their gastrointestinal systems by introducing more “good” bacteria into the gut. A healthy gut is an important factor in general well being. 

“Overall, they are safe and effective for a lot of GI symptoms, especially for preventing GI symptoms associated with a lot of diarrheal issues,” Dr. Garrison says.

How do probiotics help?

Probiotic supplements contain billions of living microorganisms that can benefit humans.

“Our intestines are full of bacteria,” Dr. Garrison explains. “That’s part of our body and how we process foods and break down nutrients. All that is aided by bacteria that lives in our digestive tracts.”

Although bacteria already live in your body, everyone’s biome is different. Dr. Garrison says that people with certain conditions can benefit from additional bacteria, which form new colonies in the gut.

Probiotics have been shown to help certain digestive issues in particular:

You can buy probiotics in liquid, capsule and gummy forms, but they are also found naturally in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and kimchi.

The probiotics you see on drugstore shelves are considered supplements, which means they aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Studies have shown positive effects, Dr. Garrison says, but it’s best to talk with your doctor about what might work for you.

“Any brand could put anything they want in a capsule and call it a probiotic,” Dr. Garrison says.

Are there drawbacks to probiotics?

Because they aren’t subject to FDA approval, probiotics do not always receive rigorous and dependable reseaarch. So, Dr. Garrison only recommends probiotics for conditions they have been extensively studied for. 

People who try them may experience mild adverse side effects, such as increased gas production and mild abdominal discomfort, Dr. Garrison says. In very rare cases, bacteria can enter the bloodstream.

People with an immunocompromised condition, such as a cancer patient receiving chemotherapy, should not use probiotics, he adds.

How to start a probiotics routine

First, examine your preexisting diet. Dr. Garrison recommends these healthy habits:

  • Gets lots of fiber through fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Limit processed grains and sugars.
  • Limit red meat.

“If you’re not adhering to a healthy diet,” Dr. Garrison says, “probiotics aren’t going to be effective for you in any sort of long-term fashion.”

Next, shop around for different options. There are many brands on the market, and some are better established than others.

When you find one you like, try it for two to four weeks, and see if you notice any change in targeted symptoms, Dr. Garrison says. If your digestion improves, you may find improvements in your overall well being too.

“We can deduce that having a healthy gut is going to help make you healthier overall,” he says.

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