Probiotics are the latest trend around digestive health. But are they all they’re cracked up to be?

Probiotics probably don’t need much of an introduction. Whether you’ve seen commercials touting probiotic-packed yogurt or are a kombucha devotee, probiotics seem to be everywhere these days. That’s because probiotics, also known as the “good” bacteria, have gained popularity for enhancing the immune system and supporting digestive health.

Sorry, germophobes, but your body is teeming with bacteria — some of which are good and others that are bad. Research suggest that an imbalance of these two kinds of bacteria can lead to a host of health issues, such as weight gain; digestive issues, such as constipation or diarrhea; and certain skin conditions. Your diet or even a course of antibiotics (which essentially wipe out bacteria) can cause this imbalance.

Enter probiotics, which are living microorganisms. They purportedly balance out the bacteria ecosystem in your body. So it’s not surprising that studies suggest that they offer a multitude of healthy benefits, such as antimicrobial properties, an anti-inflammatory effect and the ability to regulate your immune system. These good bacteria can also improve the function of your digestive system, helping to break down proteins and fat. As a result, you may find that ingesting probiotics on a daily basis may prevent occasional diarrhea, gas, and constipation.

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Plus, probiotics can dampen the growth of infection-causing pathogens. They compete with those bad bacteria for space and nutrients, ultimately keeping their growth at bay.

You can often find probiotics in supplements (look for those that contain live cultures of the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains) or in common fermented foods, such as certain yogurts, kombucha, certain types of cheeses, kefir, sauerkraut, miso and kimchi.

“Probiotics can be helpful for a number of conditions — including improving gut immunity, symptomatic improvement in patients with irritable bowel disease, eczema in children and reducing frequency of those with recurrent vaginal infections,” says Kurt Hong, MD, PhD, FACN, associate professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and internist at Keck Medicine of USC. “However, in a small number of patients, probiotics may cause bloating or even headaches. The recommendation is to start off using a smaller dose and gradually increase that dosage slowly over number of weeks.”

Before you hit the store, though, know that they’re not a magic bullet for your gastrointestinal issues.

“The overall nutritional value of the food itself is good,” said Dan W. Thomas, MD, clinical professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. But he points out that further research still needs to be conducted in order to prove the added benefit of probiotic foods.

Still, probiotics offer some advantages that could make them worth a try. They’re typically inexpensive, simple to administer, tend to be relatively safe, boost your body’s natural defenses and, of course, offer potential health benefits.

And, since there’s not much of a downside, you might as well give probiotics a chance, particularly if you’ve been dealing with upset stomach or need an immune system boost. They may help and won’t cause harm — so, worst case scenario, you just won’t notice a difference.

By Deanna Pai

If you suffer from digestive issues, make an appointment with one of our primary care specialists or digestive care specialists. To schedule an appointment, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.