Though personal, the probiotic journey has a common narrative arc—especially for those of us entering our first foray into the land of gut flora. Story goes a little something like this: Person realizes they want to support their gut health. Person purchases probiotics (ideally, after confirming the strains are clinically-backed and packaged with the utmost attention to viability). Person takes them home, excited to begin their new “good bacteria” regimen—maybe they even pop a pill, just to kick things off.
But sooner or later, questions inevitably arise: “Am I… doing this right?” “When should I be taking these for maximum impact?” “Are probiotics best on an empty stomach? With food? First thing in the morning? At night before bed?” Clearly, it’s time for a gut check. Here’s what the experts have to say.
Why take probiotic supplements?
Even a healthy person who eats a balanced diet has reasons to add a probiotic supplement to their routine. Probiotics can provide support for gut health, digestive health, and immune health—and considering that imbalances in our gut microbiota can be caused by poor diet, stress, travel, the use of certain medications, and other lifestyle and environmental factors (basically, modern life in general), it’s a smart option.* (2,4,5)
Fermented foods may not always be enough.
In the quest for supporting a healthy gut, many people turn to fermented foods and beverages that contain probiotic bacteria (kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha). But research shows that might not actually be the most effective approach. While many fermented foods do include live and active cultures—and these cultures can indeed sustain well during a product’s shelf life—after consumption, these microbes are typically unable to survive passage through the stomach and small intestine. (2)
Translation? The cultures naturally present in fermented foods may not be able to reach and colonize the large intestine, which is where the magic happens—and that kind of defeats the whole purpose. Plus, survival rates aside, not everyone enjoys (or has access to) such picks. With all this in mind, you can see why probiotic supplements can be an especially attractive choice. (2)
How often should someone take probiotics?
“Research shows that when it comes to probiotics, consistency is definitely key,” says Arianne Vance, MPH, Ritual’s Senior Scientist. That’s because even though the microorganisms in probiotics are able to successfully colonize the gastrointestinal tract, they don’t stay in there very long—evidence shows strains are only retained for days or weeks after supplementation stops, which suggests the importance of taking them continuously (ideally daily).* (2,3)
→ Essential Reading: Prebiotics vs. Probiotics: What’s The Difference?
Taking probiotics with medications: Yay or nay?
It’s generally safe to do so—in fact, some people take probiotics for the sole purpose of restoring gut bacteria after a course of certain meds (like antibiotics). That said, if you’re considering it, we recommend touching base with a trusted healthcare provider beforehand to make sure you can write off any potential interactions or side effects.* (2,6)