Probiotics have been linked to helping improve and even cure a variety of health conditions, from colic in infants to yeast infections in women to Irritable Bowel Syndrome and even cancer. But do they really work?
To answer that question, there are several things that need to be looked at:
What are Probiotics?
Simply put, probiotics is the term given to the good, helpful bacteria that live in the human digestive tract. This bacteria is easily killed off during a normal round of antibiotics, and when your body isn't able to maintain the proper amount of good bacteria, there are a variety of health problems that can ensue.
There are two main types of probiotics which generally appear in both food and supplements, Lactobacillus, which is the type of probiotics you will find in yogurts, and Bifidobacterium genera, which is easier to find through supplements.
Not all probiotics are created equal. Different strains have been associated with alleviating different health conditions - there is no "one size fits all" strain of probiotics. Research from 2018 has found that the type of product, its quality and formula, its dose, and the type of microbe strain and health condition in question are all important when considering the effectiveness of a probiotics regimen.
The condition or symptom you’re trying to treat can affect how the probiotic works and when you’ll see results. If you’re taking a probiotic for general gut or immune health, you may need to take it awhile to see results.
However, with the extremely long list of companies currently making probiotic supplements (the list includes Whole Body Research, Keybiotics, ProbioSlim, and many more), as well as making a wide variety of health claims, it is important to understand what you should be looking for if you are interested in adding probiotics to your health regimen.
Currently the most extensive and conclusive scientific studies done on probiotics have shown their ability to help people with a wide variety of gastrointestinal problems, including various forms of diarrhea caused by both medication and viruses in children and adults, as well as Irritable Bowel Syndrome and some types of intestinal inflammation.
All other health condition improvements, including allergies, urinary tract infections, yeast infections, upper respiratory infections, cancer, or lactose intolerance, which are currently being linked to regular probiotic use have not actually been proven in any scientific studies.
There are many studies that are currently being conducted however, and many more will be in the near future, so understanding of the influence of diet and supplemetns on the gut microbiome is constantly evolving.
Yogurt vs Supplements
Though there are many different foods that provide probiotic cultures, including fermented products like kombucha tea, kefir, and sauerkraut, yogurt is still the most reliable and most well known.
In fact, the International Dairy Foods Association is the only organization - including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) - that actually has strict standards and regulations for the labeling of foods containing probiotics. To ensure that the yogurt you are purchasing contains actual helpful probiotic strains, you must look for the label which says "Live and active cultures."
If you have a health condition that you are hoping can be helped by strains of probiotics other than Lactobacillus, you are better off with a supplement. Unfortunately there is no regulating body that controls the general claims made by supplement companies.
While the FDA has very strict rules for items that claim to cure diseases or have specific health effects, they have much less strict guidelines for supplements and products that just generally reference having "positive health benefits" or are associated with a term like "probiotics."
The reality is that while many doctors and scientists support people regularly eating foods that provide probiotics or are considered "prebiotic" - foods which feed the growth of existing healthy bacteria in your digestive track - they are more divided on whether or not people should take probiotic supplements.
The one thing many doctors do agree on, however, is that if you believe a daily probiotic supplement regimen is something you are interested in, you should speak to your primary care physician before you begin. Your doctor will be able to tell you which specific strain of probiotics you should be looking for and in what amounts. It will do you no good to start on a regimen of probiotics which will not be helpful to you.
Additionally, there's the possibility of negative side-effects with a daily probiotic regimen. Though probiotics are credited with alleviating upset stomachs and other digestive issues, people who take an unnecessary strain of probiotics can actually create gastrointestinal problems for themselves.
The bigger issue, however, is that probiotics can cause serious and significant health problems if you take a strain of probiotics which are known to aggravate other medical conditions you may have.
There is not really any scientific evidence that shows the need to be on a daily probiotic regimen for longer than a week or two at a time. That should be more than enough time to allow the good bacteria to take root in your digestive track and begin multiplying on their own.
*This material is provided for your information only and is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by Reviewopedia. We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider.