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If you’re interested in health and wellness, chances are you’ve considered taking a probiotic supplement. You’ve probably heard phrases such as “good bacteria” or “support your microbiome.” But are probiotics really necessary, especially for healthy individuals?
Although each person’s health needs are unique, the results of several recent studies suggest that unnecessary probiotic supplementation may disrupt your gut health. Adding good bacteria to your intestines sounds great in theory, but it can actually throw the diversity of gut microbes out of balance. Adding a highly concentrated dose of a few probiotic strains, such as Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium, as you’ll find in most supplements, can upset the delicate balance of gut flora, a condition called “dysbiosis." Ironically, this is precisely what most people are trying to avoid when they start probiotic supplementation.
However, that’s not to say that probiotics aren’t helpful in certain situations. Some people may have been recommended to take probiotics (in the form of a pill, powder, or gummy) by their doctor for gastrointestinal issues such as irritable bowel syndrome. Another common reason to take probiotics is to counter the side effects of antibiotics or to help prevent traveler’s diarrhea – though they aren’t universally effective in these situations.
If you haven’t been advised to take a probiotic by a medical professional, you may be able to help your gut by focusing on what you eat rather than automatically turning to a supplement. A fiber-rich diet helps gut microbes to thrive, so think whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and vegetables. Do you regularly eat yogurt, kefir, kimchi, or sauerkraut? If not, consider adding at least one of these fermented foods to your shopping list, as they naturally contain probiotic compounds. Like probiotic supplements, fermented foods contain live microbes as well as prebiotic fibers (which feed the probiotics) and postbiotics (the compounds made by “good” gut bacteria). One Stanford University study found that fermented foods helped to increase microbiome diversity and decreased inflammation.
Do what's best for your gut:
- People who have a compromised immune system or who are severely ill should always consult their doctor before taking a probiotic, as this can be a major risk factor for developing an infection.
- A study by the Weizmann Institute of Science found that it took five months for the microbiome to return to normal after taking antibiotics for a week and then a popular probiotic supplement for four weeks. Individuals who simply took antibiotics for a week saw their microbiome return to normal in about three weeks, without losing nearly as much microbiome diversity as those in the probiotic group.
- The results of a Stanford clinical trial strongly suggest that probiotics work differently for different people. When individuals with metabolic syndrome took a probiotic for 18 weeks, some saw improvements in blood pressure and triglycerides, whereas others had elevated blood sugar and insulin levels when compared to the control group. Clearly, probiotics have the potential to help certain people in some ways, but they may actually make things worse for others.