Probiotics: A User’s Guide

How Probiotics Work

Thinking about taking a probiotic?  You may have seen them at the pharmacy, listened to a friend wax poetic about how probiotics changed her life, or watched Jamie Lee Curtis sing their praises in Activia commercials.  So, let’s learn a little more about them.

Probiotics are live microorganisms (e.g., bacteria), similar to the beneficial bacteria found naturally in the human gut, and may be beneficial to health.  In the United States, probiotics are available as dietary supplements (including capsules, tablets, and powders) and in dairy foods (such as yogurts with live active cultures).  They’re often used for a variety of gastrointestinal conditions including infectious diarrhea, diarrhea associated with using antibiotics, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and inflammatory bowel disease (e.g., ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease).

Probiotics may improve your health by:

  • Altering the intestinal “microecology” (e.g., reducing harmful organisms in the intestine)
  • Producing antimicrobial compounds (substances that destroy or suppress the growth of microorganisms)
  • Stimulating the body’s immune response


Sounds good, right?  Here’s the major caveat: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any health claims for probiotics.  Although some probiotic formulations have shown promise in research, strong scientific evidence to support their use is lacking.  (But keep your eyes peeled, because many more studies are under way!)

However, it appears that most people can use probiotics without experiencing any side effects.  If you’re thinking about using a probiotic dietary supplement, you should definitely consult your health care provider first.  Probiotics should not be used in place of conventional medical care or to delay seeking care if you are experiencing symptoms that concern you.

Choosing a Probiotic

Different probiotic products contain different types and numbers of probiotic bacteria.  Different types of probiotic bacteria may have different effects on your body, and the effects may vary from person to person.  With that said, the best place to begin evaluating a probiotic food or supplement is its label.  It should include:

  • The specific genus and species of the probiotic organism or organisms it contains
  • The number of organisms contained in a single dose and how often you should take it (effective doses range widely, from as few as 50 million live cells for some organisms to as many as 1 trillion cells per dose for others)
  • Recommended uses, based on scientific studies
  • Storage information (some forms need to be refrigerated, others have been processed to remain viable at room temperature)
  • Contact information for the company

When all else fails, ask your health care provider or a pharmacist!

Bottom line. . . to probiotic or not to probiotic?  At this point, I’d say it’s up to you.  The research suggests that they’re fairly low risk and may benefit your health.  If you’re interested and you’ve received approval from your physician, give them a try.  (And report back, please!)

So, what do you think?  Have you tried probiotics?  What did you think?

For Giggles

As “Jamie Lee Curtis” shows us in this SNL spoof. . . everything in moderation!


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