You've probably come across an advertisement on TV or online that reads something like, "Add such and such probiotic to your diet today!" To which you likely roll your eyes and click away from the channel. But probiotics are not some scam supplement you should ignore - they are a critical part of our digestive health.

If you suffer from digestive issues - or, hey, even if you don't! - probiotics might be the secret weapon you never knew you needed.

No experience with them? No problem! We've got your go-to guide on all things probiotics right here.

What are probiotics?

According to the official definition, probiotics are "live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host".

In layman's terms, they are "good" bacteria (and sometimes yeast) found in food and supplements that are beneficial for your body. Mainly, and most notably, for your digestive system.

Note: Probiotics should not be confused with prebiotics, which are dietary fibers that help feed the friendly bacteria that are already in the gut.

How do probiotics work?

It's weird for us to consider bacteria as something positive. Isn't that what's all over your toilet seat, the thing that gets you sick? Yuck.

However, not all bacteria was created equal! There are some "good" bacteria in your body that help do important things like break down carbohydrates, destroy nasty toxins, and absorb the fatty acids which cells need to grow. Plus, by having "good" bacteria in your body, bad bacteria doesn't get a chance to grow and cause disease.

You never knew you loved bacteria so much, right?

Probiotics are basically the champions of the positive side of bacteria. According to Web MD, researchers believe they can assist your body by:

  • Replacing "good" bacteria in your body when they're wiped out by, say, antibiotics.

  • Balancing out your "good" and "bad" bacteria to keep your body working the way it should.

How can you get probiotics into your diet?

Probiotics sound incredibly complicated, when in reality, it's easy to work probiotics into your diet. In fact, you might be already without even realizing it.

While you can get probiotics from supplements, there are also plenty of foods that naturally have probiotics in them; mainly, foods that were prepared by bacterial fermentation.

Such probiotic foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi and others.

Each kind of probiotic will aid in a different aspect of digestive health, so it's important to check in with your doctor to see which type you would benefit from. Here is a quick breakdown of the different types of probiotic bacteria and how they help your tummy.

Lactobacillus: The most common probiotic, it's found in yogurt and other fermented foods. Different strains can help with diarrhea and may help people who can't digest lactose, the sugar in milk.

Bifidobacterium: Found in many dairy products, it may help ease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and some other digestive conditions.

Saccharomyces boulardii: A yeast found in probiotics. It appears to help fight diarrhea and aids with digestive problems like IBS and IBD (Inflammatory bowel disease.)

Besides helping to balance out the "good" and "bad" bacteria in your body and easing digestive issues, probiotics can also help the following problems:

  • Skin conditions, like eczema
  • Urinary and vaginal health
  • Allergies and colds
  • Oral health

How to Use Them Safely

Unlike drug companies, makers of probiotic supplements don't have to show their products are safe or that they work for the FDA. When in doubt, it is always best to get your probiotic recommendation from a professional.

Ask your doctor if taking probiotics is a good idea for you. Probiotic foods and supplements are thought to be safe for most people, but some people with immune system problems or other serious health conditions shouldn't take them.

Mild side effects might include an upset stomach, diarrhea, gas, and bloating for your first few days on a probiotic, but this does not happen in all cases. They may also trigger allergic reactions. If allergic reactions arise or the side effects last longer than a couple days, stop taking them and talk to your doctor ASAP.

Photo Credit: Flickr via Ryan Snyder