The word “bacteria” has a bad rap, conjuring up images of infection or illness. But did you know that good bacteria in your body actually helps keep you healthy? These are called probiotics, a combination of live bacteria and yeasts that live in our bodies naturally but can also be found in certain foods and supplements.
“The good bacteria help maintain neutrality in our bodies,” says Danielle Wrubel, a graduate student studying nutrition and dietetics at the University of Utah. “The good bacteria help to fight off the bad bacteria, so that’s why it’s important to help build up the good bacteria in the body.”
Get Your Probiotic Fix
You can find over-the-counter probiotic supplements in most pharmacies and grocery stores. Supplements are generally safe for most people but could cause mild side effects, such as gastrointestinal issues, when you first start taking them.
“There are a lot of supplements out there, and it may be hard for people to know which is the right one to take because they’ll contain different strains of bacteria, or it could be a really high dose,” Wrubel says.
If you don’t want to take a supplement, Wrubel recommends taking the “Food First” approach and incorporating these foods into your diet to get a daily dose of the good guys:
- Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, or tempeh
- Fermented pickles
- Sourdough bread
Probiotics Play a Big Role
The most widely known benefit of probiotics pertains to gut health because they help you digest food, produce vitamins, and can even destroy cells that cause disease. There are about 100 trillion bacteria living inside your digestive system, and probiotics can help with maintaining harmony in this complex environment.
But when the bad bacteria outnumber the good, you can get sick or exacerbate certain conditions, such as:
Probiotics can be especially helpful after you’ve been sick with a bacterial infection and prescribed an antibiotic regimen. Antibiotics kill both the bad bacteria causing your illness and good bacteria, which can upset the balance in your gut and cause gastrointestinal woes like diarrhea. Taking a probiotic supplement or consuming plenty of probiotic-rich foods can help restore this balance.
However, probiotics can help in other parts of the body besides just the gastrointestinal tract. Research on exactly how probiotics help certain medical conditions is still ongoing, but some conditions they may help include:
- Yeast infections
- Urinary tract infections
- Upper respiratory infections (such as in the ears or sinuses)
- Gum disease
- Colic in infants
Recent studies are even finding that probiotics may help enhance cognitive function and regulate your mood.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Since probiotics are already naturally existing inside your body, they are generally considered safe, especially in food form. The supplements may cause mild gastrointestinal side effects for the first few days of taking them, and certain groups should avoid them due to risk of infection, including people who:
- Have a weakened immune system (i.e. someone going through chemotherapy)
- Are recovering from surgery
- Have a very serious illness
When in doubt, ask your doctor if probiotics are safe for you to take. Supplements could potentially interfere with other medications you’re taking, and always check in with your provider before taking something new if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
If you have a sick child and are considering giving them probiotics, talk to their pediatrician first, especially if they are an infant.
In general, most people should have no negative side effects when adding probiotic-rich food into their diets. If you’re not sure where to start, try simple things like adding a cup of yogurt to your breakfast or switching to sourdough bread.
“Be curious about some of the foods that are rich in probiotics and give them a try,” Wrubel says.