By now you must have heard about probiotics, know that they are healthy and are wondering if you should be taking them. Before you stock up on pills, it would be helpful to understand how they work and whether your body really needs them. Inside our digestive tract, we harbor about 100 trillion bacteria – both good and bad. Probiotics are healthy bacteria that reside in our gastrointestinal tract. You may associate the word ‘bacteria’ with something that is harmful, but it’s actually the other way round.The Pros of ProbioticsProbiotics act like internal healers. They keep pathogens in check, aid digestion and nutrient absorption, and balance our immune system. They regulate the movement through our intestine. They help your body to produce vitamins, absorb minerals and aid in the elimination of toxins. Moreover, a woman's gut flora can also influence the health of her child.(Probiotics May Help Women Lose Weight)A growing body of evidence also suggests that gut bacteria may have a significant effect on brain function and mental health. Scientists are becoming interested in probiotics as potential treatments for depression and anxiety.It is important to know that our gut bacteria are extremely vulnerable to lifestyle and environmental factors. There are a number of things that can disrupt the ratio of good and bad bacteria that exists in our body.Certain factors like disease, stress, poor diet and overdose of antibiotics can destroy the good gut flora. When this ratio is disturbed it can cause dysfunction and digestive problems like gas, bloating, heartburn and constipation or even complicated diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.(Probiotics Can Help Lower Blood Pressure)Who should take supplements?There is no way to eliminate all harmful bacteria from the environment which is why it is important to maintain a balance and boost these beneficial strains of bacteria."Probiotics are required for daily digestive functions. They help in 'gut cleaning'. Most of the food that we eat, especially processed and canned food, can destroy the healthy bacteria," says Dr Simran Saini, Nutritionist at Fortis Hospital in New Delhi.They best way to replenish good bacteria is to add fermented foods like yogurt, picked vegetables, soy products and raw milk to your diet or anything that is non-pasteurized, as pasteurization kills both good and bad bacteria. But we can only include a very small amount of such naturally fermented foods.(Probiotics: Myth or Miracle?)Besides this, it’s hard to resort to non-pasteurized foods as pasteurization is important to eliminate harmful bacteria. That’s when a probiotic supplement can provide additional support. Some supplements may contain specific bacterial strains that you might not find in foods. People who suffer with regular tummy troubles and digestive problems should take supplements to boost the gut flora. Also, those who are gluten or lactose intolerant can depend on probiotic supplements and foods. You can find probiotic yogurt or milk in the markets. These products contain live active cultures that make them healthier.According to Dr. Niharika Ahluwalia, Nutritionist, "It's good to consume about two cups of yogurt everyday. Drink lassi or buttermilk to get your daily dose of probiotics. Those who take probiotic supplements and drinks should know that they are quite concentrated in nature and should only be consumed twice a week."Switching to supplements – Things to knowProbiotic supplements may be available as pills, drinks or powdered. The truth is that we know a lot about probiotics but at the same time, there’s a lot that we don’t.1. Probiotics are not regulated like other drugs. There are no standardized amounts of microbes or minimum levels that we require. Therefore, be careful with the quantity, dosage and type of bacteria you ingest.2. You may have to deal with mild side effects like gas or bloating, initially when you start taking probiotics. However, these symptoms get better over time. Try decreasing your dose or take it on alternate days.3. Probiotics may not be safe for everyone, especially those who have intestinal disease, HIV, cancer, weak immune system, or excessive bacteria in the intestines. Check with your doctor first.4. Different types of bacteria have different benefits. The two most common types of probiotics found in the market are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. If you are looking to prevent or treat a specific health concern consult your doctor to help you select the microorganism needed.5. Health experts suggest that we take probiotics when following antibiotic course. Antibiotics may cause collateral damage to the good bacteria and can cause antibiotic-associated diarrhea. For this reason, it is advisable to take probiotic supplements during your treatment with an antibiotic medication.6. Probiotics are beneficial only if the microorganisms are alive. Probiotics are living creatures or at least freeze-dried so that can come back to life once consumed. If you decide to use it in powdered form, do not mix it in warm water unless it indicates so. Check for expiry dates. For refrigerated products, make sure you store them in the refrigerator till you consume it.7. Different manufacturers may instruct you to take probiotics at different times. A study published in the journal 'Beneficial Microbes suggests that the bacteria in the supplements may survive much better when taken with or 30 minutes before a meal. The dietary fat tends to improve survival of the bacteria. Moreover, consuming it with milk is more effective than taking it with water or juice. "It's best to take these supplements in the morning when the load on your digestive system is less but not on an empty stomach. Taking it on an empty stomach increases your dependency on such supplements. You could take them after having a light breakfast to keep your system in check during the day," says Dr. Niharika Ahluwalia.
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