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Do You Need Probiotic Supplements?

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We know that probiotics are key to maintaining a healthy digestive tract. And various studies have linked the power-packed bacteria to numerous other health perks, including lowering blood pressure, helping with depression, and aiding in weight loss. What's not so clear: If you can get enough of the belly-dwelling organisms from probiotic-rich foods (think: yogurt, kefir, kimchi, tempeh, and sauerkraut, to name a few) or if you should be taking probiotic supplements.

Well, it's complicated. If you have a specific medical condition, like irritable bowel syndrome or ulcerative colitis, or if you've been on antibiotics, taking a probiotic supplement can be extremely beneficial, explains Patricia Raymond, MD, assistant professor of clinical internal medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School. But beyond that, research is still forthcoming about how much our bodies actually benefit from taking daily probiotic supplements without a targeted health goal in mind. Experts have varying schools of thought, mainly because it's still murky how much our body actually absorbs.

If you do plan on popping a probiotic, here's what you need to know to make a solid supplement pick.

There are different kinds. "Different strains of probiotics yield different health benefits, just as different antibiotics are chosen for different infections," says Raymond. Avoid probiotics that don't have any published medical articles supporting their efficacy, and to choose a strain that suits any medical conditions you may have, she adds. (See below.)

Look at the strains. If you're taking a supplement to help with a specific health problem, choose one that fits your needs, Raymond says. For instance, VSL#3 will help with irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis.

More is better. Choose one with around 10 billion CFU. The bottle of bugs is alive (sorry for the visual!), so some will die off as they sit on the shelf. Aim high to give yourself the best chance of reaping the benefits.

Pay attention to the expiration date. As we mentioned, probiotics are live organisms, which means the longer they sit on the shelf, the less effective they'll be.