Probiotic Supplements: Should You Be Popping Bacteria Pills?

Gut bacteria: Those are two nasty words. But the one quadrillion microorganisms in your intestines are a beautiful thing, when they're kept in healthy balance.

Together, they can work just like another organ in the digestive system, breaking down unused food particles, fending off or thwarting growth of harmful microorganisms, and synthesizing essential vitamins.

When they're out of whack, though, your guts can become a feeding and breeding ground for a schmorgasboard of harmful little critters.

Taking antibiotics and eating a poor diet are among the chief causes of what's called dysbiosis or dysbacteriosis of the gut, where "bad" colonies of bacteria overgrow, stifling growth of "good" flora. These "bad" bugs, like yeasts and staphylococci, produce an inordinate amount of waste, the removal of which creates an energy drain on the body. Digestion and absorption of certain nutrients is impaired or halted, and immunity compromised. Some sources credit dysbacteriosis with promoting pancreatic malfunction, eczema, bronchial asthma, endocrine diseases, and a belly full of other maladies.

This widespread problem is the reason for the rising popularity of probiotic supplements. These supplements promise to restore balance to disturbed bacterial congregations in your guts. But do they work? And are there alternatives to popping pills to get guts back in check?

We asked Dr. Jose Sandoval, a Miami board certified holistic health counselor certified by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners, what he thought was the best solution to this simultaneously microscopic and very big problem.

He said that there are many food sources people can reach for in order to promote the restoration of gut health, but that many of his clients aren't dedicated enough to incorporate those foods in their diets.

"For the most part, because I think a lot of Americans are really busy and don't have time for those sorts of things, I usually do recommend a supplement form of probiotics," he said. "If a client is interested, though I will gladly show them all kinds of recipes [that contain probiotic food sources]."

He said there are limited effective probiotic foods out on the market for easy consumption.

"Sauerkraut contains live and active cultures. The stuff you find in the jar usually has preservatives added to it, though," he said. "There are some exceptions to that. But there's a brand in particular, Bubbies, that has no sugar, no additives. It's just water, the cabbage, and salt. As far as processed, ready-made products, that's probably the one that I would recommend."

He says miso and natto, which are both Japanese fermented soy foods, are also excellent sources of healthy probiotics. He said that foreign cuisines often feature fermented vegetables that help to round out the gut's repertoire of healthy bacteria and that unfiltered vinegars were another great way to reintroduce some healthy strains to your gut garden.

He thinks regularly eating a sampling of these fermented foods is ideal, but for most of his busy clients, a supplement is more practical.

"I like Ultimate Flora. I think that's a good company. And I really like those because they coated the capsule, so the official cultures actually get into your intestines where they can do good, instead of being destroyed by your stomach acids," he says.

So are probiotic foods or supplements a better fit for your lifestyle? You'll have to go with your gut on this one.

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Camille Lamb Guzman is a journalist who writes on wellness, travel, and culture. She is also finishing a book of creative nonfiction.