Opinion: Do Probiotic Supplements Really Benefit Gut Health More Than Fermented Foods?

Chloe Morgan, Nutrition Student

Elementary biology classes give the paramount introduction to bacteria and teach us that microbes and microorganisms are everywhere. This knowledge sticks with us for life, however, it is sometimes difficult to comprehend just how sophisticated the relationships within the body truly are. The human body is a host for trillions of microorganisms, and the gut contains a plethora of them.  “Gut microbiota” is the term for the intricately balanced composition of bacteria found within the G.I. tract.1 The complex interaction of microbes within the gut provides the body with benefits such as enhancing the immune system, increasing the ability to effectively absorb nutrients, reducing pathogens, and maintaining homeostasis.2 When the balance of microbiota becomes disrupted, or dysbiosis occurs, the body becomes more susceptible to chronic illness and disease.3 It is no surprise then, that probiotic supplements are frequently prescribed simultaneously with antibiotics, and are even available for purchase at drug stores and supermarkets. Probiotics are live microorganisms intended to counteract harmful bacteria or provide balance within the gut when consumed.4 Probiotics can also be found naturally in foods like yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, tempeh, sourdough bread, and certain types of cheese.5

Since probiotics can be consumed in supplement form or through natural foods, there are many ways to introduce them into the body. Which method is the safest and most effective? Probiotics in supplement form have been shown to reduce antibiotic-associated diarrhea (one of the most common reasons for prescription), aid in managing ulcerative colitis, and prevent colic in infants.4 In such instances, probiotic supplements with a doctor’s approval are deemed safe and effective. A healthcare provider can provide a recommended dosage as well as directions about when and how the supplements should be consumed. The drawback to probiotic supplements is that depending on how and where they are marketed, they are not always FDA approved.4 Additionally, there is not enough evidence to prove that probiotic supplements can withstand stomach acids and bile salts. Poor tolerance to the acidic environment in the stomach can reduce their effectiveness during digestion and can make it difficult to monitor the appropriate dosage.6 For these reasons, it is likely best to follow a doctor or health professional’s advice when considering probiotic supplements and consume them only when prescribed, and at the amount prescribed. Alternatively, consuming probiotics through fermented foods as part of a balanced diet is a safe way to add beneficial microbes to the gut without a doctor’s discretion. As well as the potential to aid in homeostasis within the gut microbiota, naturally fermented foods contain proteins, vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals that benefit overall health, and which are not available through supplements. Consuming foods rich in antioxidants and vitamins is a good idea for any diet, and the added benefits probiotics can have on the body make this method a safe and healthy way to manage gut health. 

Reference List:

  1. Thursby E, Juge N. Introduction to the human gut microbiota. Biochem J. 2017;474(11):1823-1836. doi: https://doi.org/10.1042/BCJ20160510
  2. Parvez S, Malik KA, Ah Kang S, Kim HY. Probiotics and their fermented food products are beneficial for health. J Appl Microbiol. 2006;100(6):1171-1185. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2672.2006.02963.x
  3. Belizário JE, Faintuch J. Microbiome and gut dysbiosis. Exp Suppl. 2018;109:459-476. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-74932-7_13
  1. Probiotics: What you need to know. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/probiotics-what-you-need-to-know. Updated August 2019. Accessed August 28, 2021.
  2. How to get more probiotics. Harvard Health Publishing website. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-to-get-more-probiotics. Published August 24, 2020. Accessed August 28, 2021.
  3. Wang Y, Jiang Y, Deng Y, et al. Probiotic supplements: hope or hype? Front Microbiol. 2020;11:160. doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2020.00160


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