You’ve seen the TV commercials promoting special yogurt to rid abdominal cramps, bloating, and make up for years of poor eating habits. And you must be wondering, “What makes yogurt so therapeutic?” Wonder no longer: yogurt contains probiotics.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are live bacteria that are good for us—improving the balance of good and bad bacteria in our bodies. Yes, bacteria has become a “dirty” word, but truth be told, we all have lots and lots of bacteria living in our gut, in our mucus membranes and on our skin. When these bacteria are in balance, they assist in digestion, release gas in our colon (and thus are the origin of all flatulence, we must admit), and they improve the immune system by stimulating our body’s own production of antibodies to help fight infection. Probiotics also help your body turn certain foods – through fermentation – into important vitamins for you to absorb.

Do we need probiotics? Yes!

Here’s some of the many things probiotics can do:

1. They help our body deal with antibiotics. Antibiotics kill off the bacteria that make us sick, but in the process, they can kill strains of natural bacteria that help your body absorb nutrients. This can cause diarrhea and other digestive upsets, such as gas and cramping. In women, antibiotics can also cause yeast infections. By restoring the balance, probiotics help to mitigate some of the unanticipated negative effects.

2. They help us fight enzyme deficiencies. Lactase, for instance, is an enzyme that helps us digest milk products. As we age, many of us become lactase deficient, causing gas and bowel trouble. Drinking milk with acidophilus, the most commonly used probiotic, can help.

3. They help control irritable bowel syndrome. IBS is common problem that increases as we age, causing gas, bloating, and often painful abdominal cramping. Many factors can cause the discomfort; however, many of the symptoms may actually be caused by a bacteria imbalance in our gut. Probiotics can help, or even sometimes reverse IBS.

4. A recent study done in China has found that children given probiotics had 72% fewer fevers in the winter and needed to use 84% fewer antibiotics.

And even if you do not currently have any of these problems, probiotics are still worth trying. They can help relieve constipation, prevent yeast infections, lower cholesterol, and increase protection from certain cancers, including colon and bladder cancer. Of course, in order for the probiotics to work and maintain a healthy gut, you need to eat a healthy diet. Getting probiotics from food as part of that diet is the most natural approach.

Where can you get probiotics?

You can find probiotics in cultured dairy products like yogurt (as seen on TV!) and kefir, as well as fermented foods like sauerkraut. You can also take supplements, which are made up of a mix of bacteria. The most common types are acidophilus, lactobacillus species, and bifidobacteria species. Most probiotics need to be refrigerated and kept tightly sealed in an opaque container.

If you’re experiencing cramping or bloating, you should start feeling better soon after you begin taking the probiotics. If you’re healthy, you won’t notice much change—although you might have a happier glow, because you’ll be preventing illness.