You can buy them in tablets, powders and liquids. Some must be refrigerated and are pricey, while less expensive ones can found the in grocery store aisle. They’re marked as “gut healthy,” with “live active cultures” and “good bacteria.” They’re sold worldwide in health foods stores, vitamin shops and grocery stores, but what exactly are probiotics and why do you need them?

According to the World Health Organization, probiotics are “live microorganisms, that when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” In other words, they are microscopic organisms that colonize in the body to help balance the ratio of good and bad bacteria. The most common sources of probiotics in the U.S. are fermented dairy products, specifically yogurts or kefir. Other sources include kimchi, miso and kombucha. The key is to check the packaging to find the words “live/active cultures.”

Timothy Garrett, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Florida Department of Pathology, Immunology and Laboratory Medicine, explains that the microbiome represents all the bacteria that live in our gut (trillions of bacteria!).

What can Probiotic Bacteria Do?

So, why should you intentionally ingest bacteria, the very word that is usually associated with getting sick? Well, this is the good bacteria. Research has suggested that probiotic bacteria can do the following:

  • Improve digestive function
  • Help with side effects of antibiotic therapy
  • Improve tolerance to lactose
  • Enhance immune function
  • Help reduce the risk of certain acute common infectious diseases

With so many options available to you if you decide to give probiotics a go, how do you know what is important when buying them? The two most common species used as probiotics are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Probiotics are treated by the FDA as a health supplement, so you must do careful research in buying from a reputable company with appropriate labeling indicating the species type, use by date and number of organisms each dose contains. The refrigerated brands are a popular choice since microbes survive better at lower temperatures, and any type should be stored in a cool dry area. Another factor is the delivery method. Delayed release is important with probiotics; you want to be sure that the active ingredients actually make it to your intestines. The Qivana brand, for example, incorporates a triple layer to make sure the good bacteria aren’t dissolved before reaching the gut. On average, the cost can range from $1-$6 per day.

As with anything, your best course of action is to talk to your doctor for recommendations. What may have worked for you in the past might not be appropriate now. Dr. Garret stresses that the microbiome and the connection to our health is an important area of ongoing research. “We are learning new concepts about it every day.”

Probiotics are not “one dose fits all.”

Different types and doses needed vary from one person to the next, so you may have to try a few different kinds before finding one that agrees with you. Dr. Garrett explains that the bacteria in our gut can change due to aging, diet, stress or the use of antibiotics. Probiotics provide you with the opportunity to replace microbes that may have changed as a result of your lifestyle or health. As to the question of who should take probiotics and when, there is no simple answer. Eating yogurt is one way of ingesting probiotics on a daily basis. Once they have colonized in your gut, they should grow on their own at that point. However, there are some people who cannot grow certain microbes, so they would need to take regular supplements, said Garrett. Others may choose to take supplements after an antibiotic treatment course, but not on a permanent basis.

BY APRIL TISHER