Probiotics are “good” bacteria that have a positive impact on health. There are over 1000 plus strains of bacteria that are good and used to maintain our health and fight off illness, says Shekhar Challa, president of Kansas Medical Clinic, award-winning author of Probiotics for Dummies.

Since around 80 percent of your immune system is in your gut, keeping a healthy intestinal flora is really important for overall health. In fact, Rushda Mumtaz, M.D, a board-certified gastroenterologist at St. Luke’s Medical Center, says perturbations in intestinal barrier function or immune bacterial killing can lead to inflammatory response caused by increased uptake of bacterial and food antigens that stimulate the mucosal immune system and cause different diseases like allergic diseases and inflammatory bowel diseases.

Predictably food and supplement companies have not wasted the opportunity to invade the grocery shelves with cereals with added probiotics or plenty of bottles resting on the shelves shouting the mega billion bacteria that they offer. But how much do you need and what’s the best way to get probiotics? Do you even need them?

Health perks

“Research is being conducted to see whether or not probiotics can prevent or treat allergies, or help ease irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. In general, people should not take probiotics unless recommended by their physician,” points out Mumtaz.

More evidence has been shown in probiotics intake for re-colonizing the normal bacteria after antibiotic treatment and for some cases of diarrhea, says Nicolette Pace, RD. Challa states that “Women do have an extra benefit in taking probiotics because they can help fight against urinary tract infections and yeast infections.”

Functional food

There are many types of bacteria available but mostly they include strains of the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains. Yogurts that contain these are functional foods, adds Pace. So, before reaching out for the latest supplement, food sources that contain good bacteria are:

  • Fermented cultured dairy products like yogurt, kefir, koumis, leben, dahi, buttermilk, some fermented cheeses
  • Soy products like miso, tempeh, some soy beverages
  • Sourdough breads, sauerkraut, salami (may contain lactobacillus plantarum species)
  • Probiotic yeast (saccharomyces boulardi)

Although eating these food regularly will provide you with a fairly amount of probiotics, it will not be enough in some cases. This is when a supplement may be the best choice. Challa, emphasizes that “you can’t get enough probiotics through diet alone, no matter what kind of diet you eat”.

Nevertheless, not all probiotics are the same neither they have the right colony forming units (CFU) to truly affect the intestinal flora. “Aim between 1 billion and 3 billion CFUs in your supplement. Several of the top brands of probiotics have only one or two strains of probiotic bacteria, and most do not include stomach acid protection technology, which keeps the good bacteria viable as it passes through your stomach acid and gets to your gut where it can do the most good,” says Challa.

Double the benefits

If all this talk about probiotics supplementation is not enough, many experts and food brands are talking about the benefits of including prebiotics in your diet. Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that stimulate the growth and activity of the beneficial bacteria that are present in your body, says Challa.

But don’t be overwhelmed. As long as you include in your diet plenty of fruits such as bananas, vegetables like onion, asparagous, garlic, legumes, whole grains and seeds like flaxseeds you’ll be covered on the prebiotic department. Still, you’ll need to pair these food sources with natural probiotic nutrients and/or probiotic supplementation to keep your gut happy and why not your skin, immune system and even weight management efforts since there is a lot to be researched on the properties of this healthy bacteria.