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How to Use Probiotics to Improve Your Health

Are probiotics good for everyone?

For the most part, yes. And the advantages go beyond digestive health, says Roshini Raj, MD, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone. The right one can improve your metabolism, skin, cognition or even mood. One strain alleviated bloating in women with IBS-C while another helped patients with constipation become regular, in two different studies. But there’s no “one bacterium fits all” solution—every strain behaves differently, so you’ll need to find one that addresses your specific health needs. See Stomach Pain Myths Vs. Facts.

What’s the difference between probiotics and prebiotics?

Probiotics are “good” bacteria found in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut. After you eat them, these guardians of your gut may change the bacterial composition of your intestines (in a good way), provide safeguards against “bad” bacteria or turn on protective genes in your gut, says Gail Cresci, PhD, RD, a researcher in the department of pediatric gastroenterology at Cleveland Clinic Children’s. Prebiotics are long-chain carbohydrates that humans can’t digest, but they do serve as food for probiotic bacteria. Lots of prebiotics = happy probiotics. To up your intake of prebiotics, try bananas, asparagus, onions or whole grains.

RELATED: Everything You Need to Know About Probiotics

Is it better to get probiotics from food or supplements?

You multiply your benefits by putting probiotics on your plate. “The probiotics in food produce helpful by-products, such as lactic acid and butyrate. You’ll probably benefit from both the bacteria and the by-products when you consume the food,” says Cresci. However, some people may not be able to tolerate foods that contain probiotics, and flavored yogurts may contain high amounts of sugar, which can cause inflammation. “Supplements are a good and convenient way to get your daily dose of probiotics if eating probiotic-rich foods isn’t practical,” says Raj.

What about packaged foods (like chips, chocolate and trail mix!) that have probiotics?

Some things are probably too good to be true. “I would not recommend eating them as a way to get your daily dose of probiotics,” says Raj. Probiotics need a controlled environment to work their magic, and variables like oxygen can weaken their potential, especially with snack foods. Plus, you may not know the amount of probiotics you’re consuming because manufacturers aren’t always required to list the quantity of colony forming units (CFU).

RELATED: Pair Yogurt and Bananas to Help Reduce Stomach Issues

Natural Selection

Ask your MD which probiotic they suggest and then do a background check (using the criteria below) on potential options before you buy.

STRAINS: Google probiotic bacteria that pertain to your health issue—and click on the results of academic or medical center sites.

VALIDATION: Look for a product that has been patented or tested on humans with successful results.

CFU: There’s no consensus on what a daily dose of probiotics should be, but at least 1 billion CFU is a good target.

TIME RELEASE: Bacteria often don’t survive their trek to the intestine and colon, so a time-release capsule is a must.

Originally appeared in our November 2017 issue.