Do you need probiotics for good digestive health?

Probiotics continue to increase in popularity, as more people turn to these supplements to help relieve digestive health issues. With so many new products on the market, we asked Dr. Avantika Mishra to answer the top three questions about probiotics.

What is a probiotic, and is it necessary to include them in your diet?

Open hand with a small pill in the palm. Bottle of probiotics stands on the table next to the hand.

Probiotics are microscopic, living organisms such as bacteria and yeast, and are theorized to beneficially alter the gut microbiome (the living group of digestive bacteria and yeast in the human body). There is currently very limited data on the role of probiotics and who would be best suited to take them. They are not necessary to maintain good digestive health but are said to have quite a few benefits. Research is ongoing to see if patients will benefit from certain types of probiotics (for examples, patients with irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, history of clostridium dificile infection, etc.), but that data is currently not clear for medical providers. There is also no probiotic on the market that is Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved for treatment of any particular disorder.

What are some things probiotics can do for your gut?

Probiotics are theorized to help harmful bacteria from attaching to your gut lining and growing there. Bacterial overgrowth is associated with symptoms of abdominal discomfort, gas and bloating, and can even lead to vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. In certain cases, it can additionally predispose people to inflammation of the small intestine or colitis. 

Probiotics create a mucous barrier in the gut to help prevent infections, which helps healthy bacteria to flourish and prevent toxin release from harmful bacteria. If there’s good bacteria lining the intestine it can allow for all the benefits as listed previously (barrier protection, toxin prevention, etc.).

What CAN’T probiotics do for your gut?

There is lack of data and research of the safety profile of probiotics currently. Currently, labels of many probiotics on the market do not provide information regarding the entire microorganism makeup or possible contaminants. Furthermore, while packaging on probiotics guarantees a certain number of microorganisms, it is unclear how many microorganisms are actually present at time of purchase off the pharmacy shelf and active at the time of ingestion.

Remember, before you reach for supplements or make a radical change to your diet, speak with your primary care provider, your gastroenterologist or your nutritionist.