Should you be taking probiotic supplements? Emily answers this reader question by sharing her own probiotic regimen and adds on a movie recommendation to boot!
Q: As a dietitian, which probiotics do you take? Which ones should I take?
A: All of them and none of them! Let me explain…
THE BIG PICTURE
My dad and I share a love for the movie Contact.
It’s a 90’s sci-fi starring Matthew McConaughey and Jodie Foster. I’ll spare you the convoluted plot, but towards the end, Matt and Jodie have to decide whether or not they believe in this wacky story about extraterrestrial life.
To help them decide, they apply Occam’s Razor (I was in middle school when this movie came out, so my dad informed me this was a real thing), a principle which states that the easiest explanation tends to be the right one.
My dad and I often refer to this theory when we make decisions about things in life.
For some reason when you posed this question, Occam’s Razor popped into my head. I think it’s because this principle really relies on being able to take a step back, strip away all the clutter or noise that makes things blurry, and focus in on the explanation that is left.
Given the chatter about probiotics these days, let’s strip away some of the fanfare and focus on the facts.
WHAT ARE PROBIOTICS?
For those of you who haven’t heard, probiotics are living microorganisms, bacteria, or yeasts that can provide health benefits by strengthening the digestive tract and fight off unwanted bacteria.
Sounds great, right? Where can you buy them?
Luckily for all of us, you can get probiotics from food. Hooray!!
Yogurt. It’s a great way to get your daily dose of bacteria. There are at least two starter strains in every brand, and some yogurts are loaded up with even more. The variants are typically listed on the back of each container if you are interested in attempting to pronounce their lengthy names (say this three times fast: Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus acidophilus).
An added bonus with yogurt is its convenience factor – eat it right of the container, and you don’t have to do any dishes!
I also use plain yogurts in making dips, sauces, and as toppings for baked potatoes. If you like, Ann will show you How to Build a Better Yogurt Bowl too.
Similarly, the yogurt-like drink Kefir is a popular way to take in bacteria, though personally, the taste is not for me. And, even if you don’t do dairy, there are non-dairy yogurt alternatives with live active cultures.
Pickled Stuff. This includes homemade sauerkraut (I come from Pennsylvania Dutch country – we love our sauerkraut), pickles, miso, and Kimchi, for example. Super tasty and funky, and, I’ve gotta say umami-ish, fermented veggies pair so well with mild foods such as rice or other grains.
Keep your deliciousness refrigerated until you are ready to eat, as the key to getting those little probiotic buggers to do their duty (see what I did there?) is for them to stay active and alive from fermentation ➡️ intestines.
OTHER SOURCES OF PROBIOTICS
Though often touted as harmless, there are limitations to broadly and safely recommending supplements to the general public.
Given the variety of strains, the uncertainty of how much should be taken to yield results, and an individual’s own microflora (the resident bacteria that’s supposed to be in the body), more research is needed to confirm safety and efficacy of synthetics.
So, in the meantime, you could rely on foods to give you what you need.
If you have a medical condition in which your microbiota has been affected, or will likely be, there is some promising research to show that probiotic supplements may help symptoms.
Most promising, is the supportive research behind those with Irritable Bowel Disease (which includes Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis, especially those with post-operative pouchitis).
You may also want to consider a probiotic supplement after antibiotic use (which as its name indicates is “anti” both good and bad bacteria), a long bout of diarrhea, or even if you have been diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (which is a fancy way of saying I’m not sure why your tummy hurts but something is going on in there).
ASK YOUR DOCTOR
In these cases, it is important to chat with your physician prior to trying a probiotic supplement. He/She/They can help you identify specific strains, brands, or products best suited to your medical history and health status.
In your discussion, consider the risks versus benefits of taking probiotic supplements. Since this industry is unregulated, and the components of the product may be unclear, the risks could outweigh the potential benefits.
This is especially important if you are immunocompromised, have food allergies, or even if you are thinking about probiotic use with your children.
In other words, though probiotic supplements are mostly harmless, trying one should be taken more seriously than trying a new food.
WHAT ARE PREBIOTICS?
If you are also wondering, what’s the deal with prebiotics? Here’s a quickie. They help to feed and fortify the microflora, helping it grow. Get your fill from fruits and vegetables, and make your probiotic residents happy.
So back to your question – yes I totally do probiotics (and prebiotics), and I get them from the food I eat. The more variety we have in our diets, the more helpful bacteria will be available to enhance all aspects of our body.
I see how probiotic supplements can be enticing. But, for me, they present a whole lot of extra clutter and confusion in a food world that’s difficult enough to navigate.
I do not have any gastrointestinal disorders, but if I do in the future, I would absolutely consider probiotic treatment.
Until we know more, until research can be more definitive, I’m gonna dig into my yogurt. And, most importantly, I’ll be so excited to tell my dad about another case for Occam’s Razor!
The “Ask Emily” column invites you, the reader, to engage more deeply into the nutritional aspects of the blog. All food and nutrition-related questions are welcome. Some will be answered through my column, but I will reply to everyone individually. Click firstname.lastname@example.org to email me directly.