Do Probiotics Match Their Reputation?
They’ve been claimed to cure every ailment from diarrhea to depression, and as a result, have become a $50 billion a year industry.
But our family doctors in Delray Beach want to call your attention to several new studies which seem to show that probiotic supplements are not only not helpful, but they may actually be harmful.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are a class of live microorganisms such as bacteria and yeasts that you need in your digestive tract to ensure optimal digestive health. They occur naturally in the body and can be depleted by such things as stress, poor diet, illness, and the use of antibiotics.
The antibiotic effect, in fact, is what led to the probiotic craze. It’s been observed for years that the use of prescription antibiotics often cause such undesirable side effects as diarrhea and upset stomach. Research found that in doing their job—that is, attacking invading bacteria—antibiotics also deplete the store of good bacteria, thus triggering the intestinal disturbances.
Therefore, doctors began recommending that their patients consume yogurt and other fermented foods while on a course of antibiotics to help alleviate the intestinal flare-ups. It wasn’t long before drug companies began manufacturing probiotics (literally, “for life”) and advertising them as a remedy for everything from intestinal troubles to vaginal and urinary infections to skin conditions, including atopic eczema. Lately, they’ve even been recommended as mood boosters.
Studies find a reason for caution
As with so many other health issues, humans tend to want to find quick answers in a pill. But it seems that probiotic supplements—which is a largely unregulated industry—aren’t a viable solution. Several recent studies are beginning to question not only their efficacy but their safety.
Two studies published in the journal Cell in 2018, for example, found that not only were the probiotic supplements people consumed useless in up to half the people who take them, but that they might even damage the intestinal microbiome.
Researchers in the first study at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Tel Aviv examined 19 people who took probiotics containing 11 of the most common strains. Of the 19, just three showed any significant colonization of the bacteria (that means the microorganisms that were delivered survived and thrived in the intestinal tract), while five showed what researchers termed “mild” colonization. The remaining 11 study subjects showed no colonization at all.
According to Forbes, which reported on the study, previous studies on the colonization of beneficial microbes had yielded contradictory results. That’s because Forbes reported, “most of them looked at probiotics in stool samples, not directly in the gut itself. In the new research, the scientists used more invasive methods to take samples of gut bacteria directly from different areas of the digestive system.”
The second study found that those given probiotics after receiving antibiotics not only did not rebuild their intestinal store of beneficial bacteria, but that it took sometimes as long as several months for their natural microbiome to return to normal. Those who received no probiotic intervention replenished their good bacteria much more quickly, some within a matter of days.
And a new report released just last month by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) found that probiotics are essentially useless for such conditions as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), some of the many conditions for which people might use probiotic supplements.
Further, Dr. Geoffrey Preidis, a spokesperson for the AGA, noted that probiotics can harm some people with certain medical conditions, especially those with compromised immune systems.
“Among the more serious side effects is infection. As living microbes, probiotics can leave the intestines and enter the bloodstream, causing sepsis,” he said. Sepsis is a serious condition that, if left untreated, can lead to death.
Eat right for health
So what can you do instead? As we’ve said many times, the answer to good health rarely lies in popping a pill. Instead, the best way to obtain nutrients is through a healthy diet. Probiotic bacteria exist naturally in such foods as yogurt and pickled vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi. If you want to ensure a healthy microbiome in your digestive tract, there’s no harm in adding such foods to your diet.
The proper balance of nutrients obtained from lean meats, seafood, nuts, whole grains, leafy greens, fruits, and vegetables, supplies the body with all the fuel it needs to function properly.