One of the things I love about being a healthcare practitioner is that I get to help people make sense of things that are confusing for them. I just love the feeling I get when that missing puzzle piece is uncovered and it all just clicks for my patients.

Often my patients at the Women to Women clinic (and sometimes even other practitioners!) will come to me with questions about something they have heard or read about. There is so much conflicting information out there; one of the amazing things about living in today’s world is that new discoveries are being made about health and nutrition all the time. Some days I can hardly keep up!

Sometimes a woman will come to me confused about a new headline that says this food is now bad or good for you. Or maybe it’s a new product and they are not sure if it is something they should pay attention to or just a passing fad (remember the pet rock?). While this happens often, it always surprises me when a woman comes to me asking about taking probiotics.

Probiotics have been on the front pages of newspaper and magazines for close to ten years, and most of us have probably seen the yogurt ad featuring Jamie Lee Curtis, touting the benefits of eating probiotic yogurt for digestive health. In my practice, I’ve been talking about taking probiotics for decades now, so I’ll be the first to say probiotics are not a passing fad. But many people still aren’t sure whether they should be taking probiotics in supplement form or simply eating more yogurt.

Let’s talk about probiotics: what they are, why they can help, and the best way to use them.

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics actually comes from the words “pro,” which means promoting, and “biotics” which means life. Probiotics promote life: literally the opposite of antibiotics, which we take to kill bacteria that can cause disease. Probiotics are actually healthy microorganisms that live in our digestive tract; we need them to help break down and absorb the nutrients in our food.

We have trillions of these bacteria, often called beneficial flora or good bacteria. These healthy bacteria are necessary for a strong immune system, the creation of vitamins, and healthy digestion.

When our good bacteria are healthy, we are healthy. But when we get sick, these necessary bacteria can be killed or damaged, upsetting the perfect and delicate balance that exists between good bacteria and bad bacteria in our guts. When our good to bad bacteria ratio gets out of balance, disease and illness becomes more likely. That’s because our gut is considered our second brain; while it doesn’t do any thinking, we now know that the gut runs the show as far as a healthy body is concerned.

So How Does Our Bacteria Get Out of Balance?

There are several ways this can happen and usually my patients have experienced at least one of them. First, antibiotics can kill off healthy bacteria while they are attacking the bad ones. While antibiotics are one of the greatest inventions for our health and survival, if you take a course of antibiotics, you should know that the balance between good and bad bacteria will also be affected. Taking probiotics for a couple months after antibiotics will help restore a healthy balance in your digestive tract and keep your body and your digestive tract functioning optimally.

Another way your bacteria can be thrown off balance is if you experience a flu or a food-borne illness that results in vomiting and/or diarrhea. In this case, you’ve definitely imbalanced your flora and a round of probiotics afterwards will likely also be necessary to restore a healthy balance in your gut and your body.

You may also experience a flora imbalance if you have an intestinal disease or illness such as celiac disease, crohn’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If you currently experience digestive concerns including cramping, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or gas, consider taking probiotics to help restore a healthy balance as well.

Restoring Digestive Health

In addition, if you have chronic headaches/migraines, urinary tract infections, yeast infections, lactose intolerance, bad breath, fatigue or irritability or worsening allergies, asthma, PMS or perimenopausal symptoms, you may wish to consider a round of probiotics to restore your digestive health.

Even if you do not experience any symptoms, if your diet is full of fast foods or other nutrient empty calories, you will definitely want to replenish your good bacteria. In 2015, an study showed that eating at McDonald’s for 10 days resulted in the loss of 1400 types of gut bacteria, or almost 40% of the test subject’s total bacteria varieties! To make things worse, even after returning to a healthy normal diet for two weeks, the bacteria that were lost did not return!

If you’re like many of my patients, you are saying “Yes, that’s me” to one of the above. If you’ve experienced any of those symptoms or situations, you may be wondering how to restore that perfect balance between good and bad bacteria so important to our health.

What Do I Need to Know About Taking Probiotics?

In my three decades of practicing at the clinic, I’ve come to see first-hand that most of us could benefit from taking a good probiotic. So how do you find a good one?

There are many different strains of bacterias but most researchers agree that the benefits of two primary strains are significant: lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. That’s why my biotic product contains a 50/50 combination of at least 15 billion L. acidophilus and B. lactis Bi-07 bacterias.

It’s also important that the biotic you take be dairy and gluten free, as these two ingredients cause digestive concerns for many of us. Even if you are not allergic to dairy or gluten, you may be sensitive to these ingredients without even realizing it and your bacterial balance may be impacted as a result of that sensitivity.

I always ask my patients “Why would you want to take more of something you may be sensitive to as a hidden ingredient in a product you are taking to try to help restore the balance that a hidden food sensitivity may disrupt?” That just wouldn’t make any sense.

It’s important to read the labels on your probiotic carefully as recent newspaper headlines have revealed that many probiotic supplements actually contain gluten!

If you’d like to get more probiotics in your diet naturally, try some fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and kombucha. Most of us don’t eat these foods on a regular basis and they are probiotic powerhouses. Add them slowly, however, since for some some people with digestive issues, these foods may be too much for their systems to handle, and could increase irritation.

What About Yogurt?

As for yogurt, like other foods that probiotics are sometimes added to, it is not as effective as the naturally fermented foods above. Adding cultures to food after the fact makes them less available for absorption than when they occur naturally. And if a yogurt is pasteurized, as store-bought yogurt is, the pasteurization process will kill off the bacteria; that’s the whole point of pasteurization. So in addition to any bad bacteria, good bacteria will be destroyed as well.

Unless you make your own yogurt, and eat a lot of it, you’re better off taking a probiotic supplement than eating yogurt every day (not to mention that many yogurts on the market today have more sugar than a soda!).

How Long Should I Take a Probiotic?

If you’ve had a stomach flu or food illness or taken an antibiotic, even if you have no digestive concerns now, you should take a probiotic for at least one month. If you have previously experienced, or are currently experiencing, digestive concerns or entrenched premenopausal symptoms, such as gas, bloating, cramping, constipation, diarrhea, fuzzy thinking, allergies or asthma, or skin problems, a probiotic can make a big difference.

With a high quality probiotic, you should see and feel a difference within the first few weeks of use; most of my patients report feeling much better after the first two weeks.

Even if you have no symptoms, if your diet is not ideal or consists of nutrient empty calories such as fast foods, you should also consider taking probiotics.

If you are experiencing digestive symptoms, you don’t have to suffer. We’ve helped thousands of women restore a healthy bacterial balance and heal their digestive tracts. We can help you too.

To learn more, read our in depth article about probiotics here.