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Are Probiotic Supplements Really Worth Taking?

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You’ve likely heard the praise for probiotics: The good-for-you bacteria and yeasts have been shown to aid digestion, boost immunity, and regulate bathroom habits. They’re naturally found in your GI tract, which hosts more than 500 bacterial species, according to a study from the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Not all of those bacteria are the good kinds, but you can boost yourprobiotic counts through food or supplements to make sure the good outweigh the bad. “The idea is that your system will be more regular with good populations, but sometimes these balances are thrown off,” says David Meyer, M.D., Kaiser Permanente’s chief of gastroenterology in Atlanta. “By taking a probiotic, you’re trying to reestablish good, healthy populations.”

Many people get their fix by eating foods naturally filled with probiotics, like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and kimchi. But, let’s say you’re not into dairy or don’t load up on Korean food on the reg. Will taking probioticsupplements do the trick instead?

Who Should Consider a Probiotic Supplement—and Who Shouldn’t

Nearly two percent of Americans take them, and the most recent National Health Interview Survey found the use of probiotics quadrupled between 2007 and 2012. But is that increase justified? It depends. Probiotics are not essential, but they’re worth a shot if you’re struggling with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), chronic constipation, or abdominal pain, says Meyer.

Just don’t rely on them as a cure-all for every tummy issue. “One of the most important things to tell patients is that these are not miracle workers, and they don’t help everyone,” says Meyer. In fact, probioticsupplements haven’t been shown to help people with Crohn’s disease, for instance, and could even be harmful for people with weakened immune systems, like those who are in the middle of chemotherapy or battling advanced stages of cancer or AIDs. “There have been reports of significant infections in these situations where probiotics are used, although it’s not known if the probiotic had anything to do with the infection,” says Meyer.

What to Look for in a Supplement

In general, probiotic supplements are safe—and you’ll find plenty of brand options on drugstore shelves. (The quality and effectiveness of the capsules can vary from brand to brand since supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, though.) There are plenty of bacteria options, too. Lactobacillus and bifidobacterium are the most common, according to the Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology study, though Meyer has also seen success among patients and through research with S. boulardii, VSL#3, and E. coli Nissle 1917. The different species tend to treat different issues. Bifidobacterium infantis, for example, has been shown to more effectively lessen IBS than any other probiotic, finds a study published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology, while lactobacillus is known for its anti-inflammatory benefits.

No matter which one you land on, pay close attention to the label and follow the dosage recommendation outlined (generally, one or two capsules each day). Some new users report gas and bloating when they first start taking the supplements, but that should pass within a few days. Most brands recommend you store the supplements in a cool, dark place (your steamy bathroom may not cut it), and keep a close eye on the expiration date. As unsettling as it sounds, probiotics are live bacteria, and the closer you get to the expiration date, the less effective the supplements will be.

How to Tell if They’re Working

If the supplements are doing their job, your stomach symptoms will let up within a few weeks. “I tell my patients to try it for a month before they give up on it,” says Meyer. If nothing changes, it may be worthwhile to try another brand that uses a different species of bacteria.

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