Special Report

Everything You Need to Know About Taking Probiotics

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1. Probiotics and weight loss

“Weight loss is really the end result of getting healthier,” Jill Place, certified clinical nutritionist, said. “To say that supplements are good for weight loss is like saying aspirin is good for cancer.” You have to look at the underlying cause for being overweight and address it, she noted.

Studies examining probiotics’ effect in reducing body weight and Body Mass Index (BMI) have been done, but the results are not definitive. Some found the supplements helped newborns gain weight, but had the opposite effect in adults, suggesting possible bias in reporting favorable results. Other research has shown that probiotics help the body by speeding up fat metabolism, improving insulin sensitivity, and reducing inflammation, but the sample sizes were small and there was no follow-up.

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2. You don’t need them if you’re in good health

There is not enough evidence about probiotics’ effect on people in generally good health, Dr. Sari Eitches, an internist in Los Angeles, California, said. Most of the research into these live microorganisms is done with people who already have digestive or other health problems.

While use of probiotics by healthy people has been shown to increase the number of good bacteria in the gut, thus improving the immune and digestive systems, the changes were not persistent. In other words, your gut bacteria will return to previous levels when you stop taking probiotics.

“We already have a lot of good bacteria,” Eitches said. So feed it. To keep a healthy balance you should watch what you eat, she noted. “For general health, consume foods that are rich in probiotics as well as prebiotics.” Prebiotics are usually high fiber foods and whole grains, greens, onions, bananas, garlic, and soybeans.

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3. You need a specific strain for specific disease

The most scientific evidence for probiotics relates to their effect in treating GI issues and urinary infections, Eitches said. Probiotic strains of Lactobacillus are used to treat UTIs and recurrent yeast infections in women, she noted. Other strains that have been tested were not as effective.

Medical analysis reviewing 47 years of literature and trials for probiotics efficacy concluded that there is strong evidence doctors need to consider different strains for different diseases. For example, some Lactobacillus species helped prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea but others did not.

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4. How to know which probiotics you need

“You need to be specific when taking probiotics,” Eitches said. There are some tests to find out which type of bacteria you may need to balance the microbiota, she added. “This is still a little bit in the experimental phase as they are not 100% indicative of what’s really going on in the gut.”

“It’s also hard to know the right dosage,” Place said. People would normally take the recommended dose on the label, but it may vary depending on the purpose, duration, and if a person has a weak immune system. “It’s really important to work with a professional,” she noted. There is an abundance of probiotic supplements on the market and the number of living organisms in them varies from millions to over a trillion.

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5. Probiotics won’t help if your diet is still poor

“Probiotics are not penicillin for a lousy lifestyle,” Place said. “They are just a patch and won’t work if you don’t improve your diet.” Start by removing foods that are feeding the bad bacteria in your gut, such as fast foods, which are high in fat, simple sugar, artificial sweeteners, and carbs, she noted.

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