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Probiotics primer: what you need to know before you try them

They’re live microorganisms that can provide some health benefits.

Probiotics exist naturally in a wide range of foods, including yogurt, buttermilk, certain cheeses and fermented products such as tempeh, miso, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles.
Probiotics exist naturally in a wide range of foods, including yogurt, buttermilk, certain cheeses and fermented products such as tempeh, miso, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles.
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Many people are familiar with the term probiotics but might not know what they are.

Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide health benefits when ingested.

They exist naturally in a wide range of foods, including yogurt, buttermilk, certain cheeses and fermented products such as tempeh, miso, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles.

In some cases where a medical condition has arisen, supplemental probiotics might be recommended.

Probiotics are identified by their genus, species and strain, such as Bifidobacterium infantis 35624.

Within each species, there are many different strains, which can have different benefits. For overall wellness, multiple-species products usually are preferred rather than a single-strain product.

The number of probiotics in a supplement is expressed as colony-forming units, or CFU, and indicates the minimum number of live microorganisms at the expiration date. Amounts might be written on product packaging as, for example, 1 x 109 (1 billion) CFU or 1 x 1010 (10 billion CFU).

Many probiotic supplements contain between one and 10 billion CFU, though some contain 50 billion CFU or more.

How to take probiotics

  • Talk to your healthcare provide, to be sure that probiotics are right for you.
  • Follow the package instructions for dosing and storage. For example, certain probiotic supplements must be kept refrigerated to maintain benefits.
  • For best results, take your probiotics regularly unless otherwise recommended by your doctor. Supplemented probiotics generally do not survive in the gut for more than a week or two and must be taken consistently.
  • Don’t take with antibiotics. If you are taking antibiotics and probiotics, separate them by at least two hours.
  • Include prebiotics — fiber that helps to nourish beneficial microbes. Prebiotic sources include whole grains and vegetables. Certain probiotic supplements have added prebiotics, like inulin.
  • For an ongoing health issue, like irritable bowel syndrome, try a specific product for three to four weeks. If your symptoms don’t improve, take a break from use, then try a different product to see whether another one might work better.

Environmental Nutrition is an independent newsletter written by experts on health and nutrition.