Lisa Hayes

You may be hearing more and more about probiotics — supplements that contain “healthy” bacteria that claim to have multiple benefits, including helping with gut health and digestive issues. Probiotics are being marketed for specific conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or to demographic audiences such as women or children. But do they really help?

What are probiotics?

Often referred to as “friendly” or “good” bacteria, probiotics help keep the normal healthy balance of bacteria in your gut, specifically the lining of the gut which includes the microbiome.

We are learning more and more about the body’s microbiome and how to maintain the balance of bacteria already growing there in addition to adding living bacteria into your system through probiotics. A healthy gut microbiome helps with digestion, boosts the immune system, contributes to blood sugar levels, and may even influence mood and mental health.

Where are probiotics found?

Probiotics can be found in multiple forms. Bacteria-fermented foods are good sources of probiotics including:

• Active-culture yogurts

• Cheese

• Sauerkraut

• Kefir

• Kombucha

• Kimchi

Probiotics also come in pill form with a variety of different strains or types, including acidophilus, lactobacillus, or formulations targeted for different health benefits, such as gastrointestinal health or women’s health.

Research on probiotics

Probiotics are under active research for a variety of different conditions. Right here at Mayo Clinic, the Mayo Clinic Center for Individualized Medicine is researching how our individual microbiomes may benefit from personalized probiotics.

Generally, there are a variety of areas of research for probiotics:

• Gastrointestinal health — especially for people with certain infections or chronic conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and IBS, or for a serious infection called Clostridioides difficile (C. diff)

• Vaginal health

• Allergies — including skin conditions like eczema

What’s the consensus? Are they beneficial?

Currently there is no clear evidence that probiotics are beneficial. While many small studies have been conducted, there has been no standardized way to study probiotics and their effects, making it difficult to compare the results of different studies.

Probiotics are not currently regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which means the companies that make probiotics do not need to prove the product contains the ingredients listed on the bottle.

What should you do before taking probiotics?

Talk to your health care provider before starting a probiotic. People with very weak immune systems, such as those undergoing chemotherapy, should not take probiotics due to risk of infection.

Your provider or a nutritionist can help identify a probiotic containing the bacteria strain based on the condition you wish to address.

Besides probiotics, what can I do to benefit my digestive and overall health?

Eat a varied diet of protein, grains, fruits and vegetables. Research has shown that a diet containing a variety of different foods is beneficial to our gut microbiome.

Engage in regular physical activity. Studies have shown that a healthy diet and physical activity have separate, positive benefits on our overall wellness.

Lisa Hayes, M.D., Family Medicine physician, Mayo Clinic Health System in Waseca.

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