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Part of a monthly series of columns from the Nashoba Valley Medical Center.

The term “bacteria” usually gets a bad rap and many associate it with negative health scenarios. But bacteria aren’t always bad and there are “good” bacteria in our bodies that help with digestion and provide protection from the “bad” bacteria.

So how can we make sure our bodies have enough of the beneficial bacteria? Taking a probiotic may be the answer.

How Probiotics Can Help Keep You Healthy

Probiotics are foods such as yogurt and other fermented products, or dietary supplements that come in the form of tablets, capsules, or powders that contain the “good” bacteria. There are many general types of bacteria used as probiotics, with the two common ones being lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. They have different physiological effects resulting in possibly different health benefits and there’s reassuring evidence that probiotics may help:

* Your overall digestive tract, which should contain a balance of good and bad bacteria, become more healthy

* Protect your gut wall and aid in preventing gastrointestinal illnesses and food intolerances

* Treat diarrhea, especially following treatment with certain antibiotics

* Prevent and treat vaginal yeast infections and urinary tract infections

* Treat irritable bowel syndrome

* Speed treatment of certain intestinal infections

* Build up your immunity and prevent or reduce the severity of colds and flu

What are the Cons of Taking Probiotics?

Overall, probiotics are considered safe for healthy individuals and the side effects of taking probiotics are rare. Side effects, if they occur at all, usually consist only of mild digestive symptoms such as gas.

“Research is showing that the pros in most cases outweigh the cons when it comes to taking probiotics,” said Vandana Sahay, MD, an internal medicine physician at Nashoba Valley Medical Center. “Always check with your doctor before taking supplements to make sure that they’re okay for you.”

Also, those who are critically ill, have certain bowel problems, a weakened immune system, or are pregnant should talk to their doctor before taking probiotics. Parents should consult with their pediatrician before giving probiotics to a child or infant.

Probiotics are promising and research is being conducted every day to provide more evidence that increasing the “good” bacteria is good for your body. When it comes to taking probiotics, ask your doctor what the best options are for you and your body. If you need help finding a care physician affiliated with Nashoba Valley Medical Center, call 978-784-9990.