Are Probiotics Really Necessary?

Robin Berzin, MD

Probiotics have become one of the buzziest supplements lately as science reveals more about the gut microbiome and the impact it has on overall health. Probiotics can be a powerful tool to both shift the microbiome in cases where you may have gut or digestive issues and shift the immune system. But should you take a probiotic? The answer actually depends.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are living bacteria and yeasts that play a role in every system of the body. They’re found naturally in the gut, but things like diet, lifestyle, and medications can all alter your gut’s balance of good and bad bacteria. That’s where supplemental probiotics come in—the kind you’ve probably seen on store shelves or heard about in fermented foods. These can help repopulate the good, healthy bacteria and crowd out the bad bacteria.

What do probiotics do?

One reason more people need probiotics now than ever before is because the environments that most of us live in are pretty germ-free. People don’t spend a lot of time out in nature, getting dirty. As a culture, we also tend to rely heavily on antibiotics, which kill off good bacteria, as a first method of attack for bacterial infections.

Even many of the food and drinks you consume can impact the population of your gut bacteria. A more diverse diet, for instance, can improve the diversity of microorganisms can negatively affect the microbiome.

If your gut needs the extra help, probiotics can be used to shape your microbiome in a way that will be healthier for you.

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When to take probiotics

For specific conditions, probiotics can be helpful. At Parsley Health, we use probiotics for digestive conditions like IBS, colitis, and Crohn’s disease and immune issues such as eczema and other autoimmune disorders.

Not all probiotics are created equal though. Our doctors use medical-grade probiotics—they’ve been tested, we know what is in them, and we know how they work. We also prescribe specific probiotics for specific conditions.

This is especially important, because new research in Cell has confirmed that the generic probiotics you can find at drugstores may not be effective for everyone. A personalized approach to choosing specific bacteria strains based on an individual’s microbiome may be more effective, the researchers say.

In some cases, probiotics aren’t the best answer. When people took a generic probiotic after completing a course of antibiotics, it actually prevented their microbiome from fully recovering even after six months, found a second small study in Cell .

More new research in Clinical and Translational Gastroenterology even found that in the case of certain existing digestive problems, probiotic use is linked to brain fog and bloating.

I recommend working with a doctor to determine what’s right for you. This field of research is rapidly advancing, so as new science around the gut microbiome emerges, doctors will be able to continue to personalize care.

Looking for more resources on gut health? Check out the articles below:

Robin Berzin, MD

Dr. Robin Berzin is the founder and CEO of Parsley Health. A Summa Cum Laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Robin completed medical school at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and trained in Internal Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

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