What if the secret to better health -- both mental and physical -- were all locked within your stomach? That’s the current theory about the gut microbiome and microbes, which are microorganisms that live in your body and are the home to trillions of bacteria that influence how you develop diseases, achieve longevity, and even gain or lose weight.

The crazy part? Until the 1990s, scientists didn't even know that the microbiome existed. 

What has followed is a 20-year scramble to research and learn more about the "second brain" of your body.

Enter probiotics. These healthy bacteria grow and live within particular foods, and can hypothetically help improve or restore the health of your microbiome.

The catch? Much like the early stages of medicine, we're still in wait and see mode. Before you go taking any probiotic, it's important to know that as recent as 2019, the European Food Safety Authority (known for their strict standards) rejected many claims made about the benefits of probiotics.

Now, that doesn't mean you should avoid probiotics. The microbiome is still one of the biggest medical breakthroughs in the last 100 years. But, before you buy some probiotic-infused popcorn, there are a few important details you'll want to know. 

The Probiotic Paradox

If you've never taken a probiotic before, this should give you some relief: There is no evidence that your body (or microbiome) needs probiotics in order to be healthy.

Probiotics are live microorganisms that feed the healthy bacteria in your gut. If you have a healthy gut -- meaning no dysfunction or diseases -- then taking probiotics is a good habit that might not have any additional benefits.

Scientists know that the microbiome is important. And they know that probiotics are, generally, safe. What is still being understood is what types of strains of probiotics will trigger the changes that you desire most and how they work to improve gut health and remove bad bacteria.

Here's what we know for certain: If you have a gut condition like irritable bowel syndrome, then probiotics can help restore a better environment for your gut, improve symptoms, and make you feel better. Or, if you take antibiotics for an illness, those drugs can be a disaster for your microbiome.

Following antibiotics, probiotics might help restore a healthy environment. In that way, it’s best to think of probiotics like medication. When you’re healthy, you don’t just take medication; it’s only needed to help solve or fix a problem. Probiotics work in a similar fashion.

Which might leave you wondering: “Great -- probiotics have benefits, but why are people taking these things every day and popping up in everything from granola to popcorn?”

Honestly? It's because some probiotics are cheap, look good on a label, and are safe.

But, that does little to help you. If you want to know if you should add probiotics to your diet, there a few quick tips that can help you instantly scan any food and know if it'll give you the boost you need.

Your Guide to Probiotics

If you are generally healthy, there aren't many known downsides to taking probiotics. But, some benefits are known, while others are a guess. Here's where your taking probiotics are a good bet.

The Benefit: Illness

As we mentioned before, probiotics are great if you already have a known problem. So, if you are suffering from any of the following, taking probiotics (after consulting with your physician) is a no-brainer:

The Benefit: Immunity

Additionally, some research suggests taking specific probiotics may support immune health and potentially reduce the risk or duration of the common cold. That’s why you might see them added to certain products like greens or protein powders.

What to Avoid with Probiotics

Before you start investing in infused products, there are a few very important exceptions.

First off, skip the fortified foods. That means popcorns, cereals, granola, and breakfast bars are all great ideas that will simply charge you more money for probiotics that won’t do anything for your body.

Also, for now, you might want to use caution with microbiome tests that will allegedly help you understand what probiotics you need to eat.

Your best bet is to consult a doctor who understands your condition and is also well-versed in probiotics. Follow your doctor’s recommendation down to the strain and dose.

The “dose” is the big number on the label, most likely in the billions, which indicates the colony-forming units, or CFU. Higher isn't necessarily better, so follow your doctor’s advice.

The last thing to look for is any seal from a third-party verification program to be sure that what the probiotic contains what the label says it does. NSF Certified for Sport guarantees that label claims are accurate and that no contaminants or impurities exist within the product. But, note that statements like “quality guaranteed” do not mean they have been verified by third parties.