Gut Talk: Should You Be Taking Probiotics?

Probiotics are one of those trendy health topics that people are initially excited about, but then the excitement transitions into confusion. What are probiotics? I’m in my twenties, so do I actually need to care about this? Are probiotics something that only needs to be taken when I’m on antibiotics?

Simply put, probiotics are products you can take that help populate, and maintain, the body’s natural army of good bacteria. There are thousands of different species of naturally good bacteria throughout our gastrointestinal systems that help digest foods, and generally keep things regular. For example, some bacteria in the colon ferment the roughage from really fibrous foods, which causes gas (not so awesome), but also generates vitamin K. Also, the gut’s good bacteria play an important role in maintaining a strong immune system, and are perhaps even connected to mental health. In addition, there are also good bacteria in the vagina that help keep the vagina’s pH appropriately acidic, and keep things from getting any weirder than they already are in that area.

One of the primary factors that is most likely to screw over your natural gut flora is antibiotics. I’m not saying that antibiotics are bad, per se, but that it is a common side effect of antibiotics to experience gastrointestinal distress. This is due to the fact that, unfortunately, antibiotics do not discriminate in between the good and bad bacteria. So, while it’s awesome that the antibiotics are running all over our bodies slaying the infecting bacteria, in the process they also knock out the good bacteria. This can lead to diarrhea, a generally queasy gut, and (cue the ominous music) the dreaded itchy, funky discharge-producing yeast infection.

Of course there are several other factors that can mess with your gut’s bacteria balance, including food poisoning (obviously), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and any other variety of gastrointestinal disorders. Some sneaky things that can bungle up your vaginal flora are new sexual partners and not cleaning your snatch correctly.

Enter probiotics. The most common item that people associate with probiotics is yogurt, and rightly so! Friendly bacterias are used to ferment milk into yogurt, and so by eating yogurt you’re taking in the same friendly bacterial strains into your gut to join the rest of the legions. A lesser known product called kefir is another fermented dairy product that also contains happy bacteria. Check at your local grocery store to see if they carry it and give it a shot—most people are pleasantly surprised. On the packaging of dairy products, look for the “live active cultures” seal somewhere on the label, which indicates that the probiotics are still kickin’ in the product.

When foods are fermented, there are usually good bacteria involved. Some lesser known foods that contain probiotics are kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, kombucha, and miso. Unfortunately, while beer is fermented, the good bacteria are filtered out of it during the fermentation process. Sorry, America.

If eating buckets of yogurt isn’t your thing, or you need a bigger dose, probiotic supplements can be bought at grocery stores, pharmacies, and stores like GNC and The Vitamin Shoppe. But, as with all supplements (in the U.S.), the FDA does not regulate the contents of supplements. So make sure to buy a reputable brand and do your research beforehand—and please, avoid the hippy-dippy brands and websites.

Sometimes, no matter how devoted you are to taking in probiotics, disaster strikes and you need some diflucan to neutralize your yeast infection, or you need bactrim to eliminate your UTI. So I’m not saying that probiotics are going to rescue us all from the dastardly issues in the nether regions. But, generally, probiotics can help prevent some of those problems, make for a happier gut, and boost your immune system. It’s so simple to eat some yogurt or take a pill, which is a win in my book, darlings.

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