Do You Really Need to Take a Probiotic?

Nutritional Supplements in a bottle
Douglas Sacha

Not long after researchers discovered the benefits of probiotics—gut-friendly live bacteria—stores began teeming with products claiming to improve your microbiome. But experts caution that the powders, refrigerated pills, and yogurt and kefir with added strains won’t work for everyone. Are they right for you?

Yes…for specific conditions.
Gastrointestinal ones, namely. “The strongest evidence is for people with inflammatory bowel disease, and occasional abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea,” says Mary Ellen Sanders, researcher and founding president of the nonprofit International Scientific Association for Prebiotics and Probiotics. Other promising areas include treating allergies, anxiety, and obesity, though more research needs to be done. “Probiotics interact with your gut’s immune cells to help prevent infections and inflammation,” Sanders says. “They also create more microbes, which improves intestinal health.” Different strains are more effective for different issues, so read the packages carefully before buying.

Yes…if you’re on antibiotics.
These powerful drugs are programmed to kill infection-causing bacteria, but they can also lower the levels of good bacteria in the GI tract, allowing harmful pathogens to flourish. Probiotics can help keep bacterial levels balanced and ward off GI issues (namely diarrhea).

No…if you’re healthy.
They won’t hurt you, but there’s not enough evidence to warrant regular supplementation. To maintain healthy bacterial levels, better to reach for fermented products (yogurt, kefir, kimchi, kombucha) and foods that deliver prebiotics—certain nutrients, like inulin fiber—that probiotics feed on (garlic, onions, and leeks are good sources). Fermented foods contain a greater diversity of microbes than supplements, which is better for overall health, says Sandra M. Buerger, a lecturer in natural sciences at Boston University. Plus, you get all of the benefits (vitamins, minerals, nutrients) from the whole foods.

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