Unless you do your grocery shopping online, you've probably noticed quite a few new products on the shelves with a label boasting that they contain probiotics. Right now, these "good" bacteria are being hailed as nutritional rock stars. The claim: They can whisk you away to wellness. But as beneficial as probiotics seem, our enthusiasm for them may be outpacing the science showing what they can actually do. Before you plunk down your cash, here's what you need to know.
How Probiotics Work
To make sense of how probiotics work, you'll need to understand a few details about your stomach's landscape. There are more than a trillion bacteria cells hanging out in your digestive system. And that's a good thing. Most of these bugs are "friendly" bacteria; they extract nutrients from your diet and boost your immunity by fighting off germs.
Even though the adult digestive system is dominated by a few common bacteria species, scientists suspect that each person can harbor more than 500 different kinds. Your own gut bacteria are like a fingerprint; no two people's are the same. Despite the differences, scientists know that these bacteria mainly coexist harmoniously, helping to maintain a healthy digestive system. But this gastrointestinal (GI) party is crashed by stress, illness and even antibiotics (which can fight infections by indiscriminately killing off both the good and bad bacteria). That's why some experts believe that consuming probiotics—either in food or supplement form—can help improve or maintain your health. Since they're similar to the good bacteria that are already living in your stomach, you'll kick out your digestive system's unwanted guests, which may alleviate depression, assist with weight loss and reduce the duration and symptoms of some illnesses.