8 Things Probiotics Can Do (And 3 They Can’t—Yet)

Literally meaning "for life" in Greek, probiotics seem to have a lot of health benefits. Here are the ones you can really trust.

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What are probiotics?

They're live micro-organisms that support healthy populations of bacteria in your digestive tract. When the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut is off, you can develop diarrhea, constipation, bloating and other ailments. Probiotics help restore order in the gut, according to a new paper on probiotics in Frontiers on Microbiology. But these microbes must be alive and you have to get enough of them to benefit, explains study author Gregor Reid, PhD, MBA, Director of the Canadian R&D Centre for Human Microbiome and Probiotics at Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ontario, Canada and past President of the International Scientific Association of Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP). Reid also chaired the United Nations/World Health Organization Expert Panel that authored the definition of "probiotics" in 2001. Learn even more facts about probiotics.

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The basics

The most common groups of probiotics include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium; some of the popular strains within these groups are L. acidophilus, L. bulgaricus, and B. bifidum. That sounds complex, but the names get even more confusing, often coming with numbers, letters, and other important identifying details. So read carefully to make sure you're getting the probiotics you want, warns Reid, who's also the chief scientist of Seed. You'll also want to be sure that the studies touting a probiotic actually tested people—and not just mice—he says. There is evidence supporting the use of certain strains to treat or prevent some types of illness, but in other cases, the studies simply haven't been done yet.

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Probiotics can help traveler's diarrhea

The Guideline for the Prevention of Travelers' Diarrhea by the International Society of Travel Medicine now recommends the use of probiotics to prevent or treat traveller's diarrhea. Reid says the group also included research on prebiotics, which feeds good bacteria. Good prebiotic foods include garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, and other healthy veggies that contain loads of fibre. Timing your probiotics will also help stave off traveller's diarrhea.

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