Ask the Expert: Should I Be Taking a Probiotics Supplement?

Before heading out to your nearest drugstore, consider these points.


Photo via Getty Images/ marekuliasz

Gut health is a big topic in the wellness world right now—more specifically, the maintenance of a healthy balance between good and bad bacteria in our intestines, stomach, and throat. Its rise in popularity can be attributed, in part, to the fact that every day we are learning so much more about our gut and how it functions. But just like with many things about the human body, we still don’t know all there is to know.

With the increased interest in gut health, it seems not a single person goes without wondering if they, too, should be taking a daily probiotics supplement. They have been prescribed to treat everything from irritable bowel syndrome to arthritis to skin issues, and you can find them on the shelf at any store with a focus on wellness, from Whole Foods to your local gym. And these concerns are certainly warranted. Everyone seems to be doing it. But is it really necessary? Or should we be focusing on something more, shall we say, simple? Because we are still learning so much about the gut each and every day, we asked registered dietitian Matt Priven whether or not probiotics supplements are entirely necessary, or if we could bypass this extra step in our wellness routine.

Ask the Expert: Should I be taking a probiotics supplement? 

Answer: Eat foods that are high in fiber first, and see if that fixes your problems. 

The details: 

To understand the gut, Priven says you must first know that we have trillions of microorganisms that live inside us, mostly in our large intestine and most of them being bacteria. “Certain bacteria found in foods have been shown to contribute positively to our health,” he explains. “We call these probiotics.” When the balance of this bacteria is off, or these microorganisms aren’t thriving, you might experience not only stomach discomfort but also other health problems such as skin issues, inflammation, or even certain mental health conditions.

Foods that contain probiotics include kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, and kombucha, while popular supplement forms of probiotics include Culturelle, Align, Jarrow, and RenewLife. So if probiotics are good for our gut, why wouldn’t we load up on as much of them as we can get? Well, sometimes too much of a good thing can actually be a bad thing. Your problem might not necessarily be that you’re missing probiotics in your life, it’s that those healthy microbes in your gut aren’t thriving, says Priven.

This is where prebiotics and fiber come in.

“Prebiotics are unlike probiotics in that they are not microorganisms at all,” he says. “Prebiotics are the parts of our food that we can’t digest, but are actually being digested by the beneficial microbes inside of us, feeding them and promoting their health so that they can, in turn, support our health.” If we don’t get enough of them, it won’t matter how much kombucha we drink, because the good stuff in kombucha won’t be able to survive in our bodies without the good stuff from prebiotics.

But where the heck can I find prebiotics and why would I want to eat something I can’t digest? It’s not really as complicated as it sounds. Prebiotics are usually just foods that are very high in fiber. So, think: oats, bananas, beans, lentils, onions, garlic, flaxseeds, and asparagus. And you typically won’t find them in supplement form on their own, but they are often added to probiotics supplements. “Generally speaking, a diet low in prebiotics is a diet low in fiber,” Priven says. “And the average adult in the United States only gets about half of the recommended fiber intake.” According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, men should aim for about 38 grams of fiber per day and women should eat about 25 grams.

So, while both prebiotics and probiotics are important for health, Priven says prebiotics are most important to focus on first, and then you might look into probiotics supplementation. He says to find prebiotic-containing meals and snacks that you love and incorporate them into your diet regularly. Just as a reminder, he says to always look at what you’re putting on your plate first before you decide to consider taking something in pill form.