Q: I’ve been thinking of adding a daily probiotic supplement to my regimen to promote intestinal and overall health. Are there any risks or side effects I should be aware of?
A: There’s no doubt the bacteria that reside in our intestines affect our health in many important ways, from our mood to our digestion, appetite, immune function, disease risks and metabolism. Probiotic supplements are generally safe and well-tolerated. Although it’s not common, probiotics can cause some unpleasant but relatively harmless side effects, such as intestinal gas or bloating. Suddenly increasing your fiber intake can do the same thing — and for much the same reason.
The bacteria that reside in your gut produce tiny amounts of gas as a by-product of their metabolism. When you increase their activity, either by boosting their numbers or by adding to their food supply, an increase in their output is an inevitable result. Fortunately, this is usually a temporary effect, dissipating as you (and they) adjust to the new normal.
Because probiotics, by definition, contain live and biologically active bacteria, they should be used with caution if you have a digestive disease or immune disorder. If you have a bowel condition, are taking immunosuppressive drugs or have any other serious health condition, check with your doctor or a licensed nutrition professional before beginning a probiotic supplement.
Some research supports the use of specific probiotic products to prevent or relieve diarrhea caused by antibiotics, as well as so-called traveler’s diarrhea. However, evidence linking probiotic supplementation with general, long-term health benefits is still fairly preliminary.
For now, your money and effort might be better spent focusing on foods that support a healthy microbiome rather than probiotic supplements. These include cultured and fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi, as well as fiber-rich foods like nuts, legumes, whole grains and vegetables.