The Truth About Probiotics: Should You Be Taking Them?

​​It seems as though each year there is a new miracle superfood, supplement, or product that "everyone" should be using in order to be at the peak of good health. For awhile now it seems that probiotics must be the newest member of this club.

Probiotics have recently been linked to helping people 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 many different things that need to be looked at:

  • What are Probiotics?
  • Scientific Studies
  • Yogurt vs Supplements
  • Expert Advice

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. However, with the extremely long list of companies currently making probiotic supplements, like 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. 

Scientific Studies

Currently the most extensive and conclusive scientific studies done on probiotics has 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, though there are many studies are being conducted currently, or will be in the near future. 

Yogurt vs Supplements

Though there are many different foods that provide probiotic cultures, including fermented products like kombucha tea, kefir, and sauerkraut, yogurt is always the most reliable and most well known.

In fact, the National Association of Yogurt 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 no rules for products that just generally reference having "positive health benefits" or are associated with a term like "probiotics."

Expert Advice

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 a lot more divided on whether or not people should take probiotic supplements. 

The one thing they do agree on, however, is that if you believe a daily probiotic supplement regimen is something you are interested in trying, you should speak to your primary care physician before you begin. First, 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.

Second, there is 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 problem, however, is that they can actually cause much more serious and significant health problems if you take a strain of probiotics which are known to aggravate other medical conditions you may have. 

Finally, 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.

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