Healthy Living

Gut check: A look at how probiotics can improve your overall health

Many supplements are unregulated: Experts suggest trying dietary changes first

(Adobe Stock Photo_
(Adobe Stock Photo_

Mention the words “gut bacteria” and you’re instantly met with grimacing faces and questioning looks. It sounds menacing, even unhealthy.

Truth is, there are about 100 trillion bacteria in your digestive system — and not all of it is bad. Some gut bacteria is not only good to have around, but can improve certain health conditions, including heart disease and arthritis to cancer.

Researchers are starting to look at both kinds of gut bacteria — called microbiota — as its own organ system, and studying ways in which the “good bacteria,” or probiotics, are beneficial to our health.

“Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that live in our gut. We really rely on them for keeping our digestive system healthy, as well as so many other things,” said Dr. Tanya Teggatz, founder of the Teggatz Clinic at 5100 Fountains Dr. NE in Cedar Rapids.

While probiotics are naturally occurring bacteria in the human body, not everyone has the levels necessary to maintain good health. Bringing those bacteria back up to healthy levels can be done with probiotic supplements, or eating a diet that “feeds” the probiotics in your body.

Teggatz recommends probiotics in her practice, but she said she cautions patients to be sure they’re getting true probiotics and not something with minimal affect.

“One thing about supplements in general is that the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate them at all, so there is really no recourse if a company says something is in their product that really isn’t — or, worse, if they say something isn’t in their product and it really is,” she said. “There is a definite difference in supplements and supplement companies, and I caution patients to really take a look at what they’re getting.”

There are a variety of probiotic supplements available — in capsule, tablet, powder, chewables and gummies — in most health care aisles of drugstores, but the best ones, Teggatz said, are in the grocery area.

“Ideally, you want the probiotics to be alive, and you’re more likely to find those in the refrigerated section of your store,” she said. “Also, be sure to look for one that has several different strains of bacteria in it — I recommend it have at least seven strains.”

Teggatz said she recommends that healthy individuals — those who may be taking probiotics to help with minor digestive discomfort, like diarrhea or heartburn, or for weight regulation — look for supplements “with at least 24 billion CPUs,” or “colony-producing units.”

To get the best kind of probiotics, Teggatz advises patients to “feed the bacteria” — with food.

“If you can get your probiotics from food, that is always going to be better,” she said. “When we create supplements, we put all the compounds in them, but those things occur naturally in some foods.”

Fermented foods like sauerkraut, pickles, miso, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, and certain types of yogurt and sour cream are usually the best places to find probiotics, she said. Other foods to include would be “the foods the good bacteria eat — fiber, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains,” Teggatz said.

“What we eat feeds the bacteria,” Teggatz said. “Good foods will feed the good bacteria, and bad foods will feed the bad bacteria.”

While adding probiotics to your diet through supplements isn’t bad for you, it shouldn’t be a first step, Teggatz said.

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“Before I would take probiotics, I would try improving my diet,” she said. “But if you have an imperfect diet, probiotics will probably help.”

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