First things first! What are probiotics? Simply put, probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts (officially microorganisms) found in certain foods and supplements. They are acclaimed as miracle supplements for digestive health, and if you believe what you read, can cure anything from joint pain to cancer.
Not that we don't believe in miracles ... but ... we were skeptical as to whether everyone, everywhere should be taking probiotics. We decided to investigate probiotics a little further with these important questions in mind:
- Do probiotics provide health benefits? If so, what are these benefits?
- Should everyone take probiotics?
- What are the contraindications?
Do Probiotics Provide Health Benefits?
The short answer among many experts is "yes," probiotics do provide health benefits. Probiotics, if appropriate for your body, can ease uncomfortable digestive problems, prevent mood imbalances (remember most of our serotonin is in our digestive tracts), prevent recurrence of urinary tract infections, and improve the quality of your skin, among other benefits, experts claim.
How do probiotics work? Your digestive tract has "good bacteria" and "bad bacteria," which make up the intestinal flora of your gut. Bad bacteria feed on sugar and processed foods and can also grow after certain types of infection. The thinking behind probiotics is that the good bacteria will colonize and overpower this bad bacteria, leading to that voila moment when all of your digestive problems vanish. We are wise enough to know, though, that if it sounds too good to be true, it often is. It is very important to do more research before you introduce any supplements, no matter how harmless they seem, into your health regimen.
Should Everyone Take Probiotics?
If we could shout from the mountains that not all supplements are appropriate for all people, we would. Until then, we will settle with the short answer - NO, probiotics are not appropriate for everyone.
To determine if you should take probiotics, consider a few things. Do you have any contraindications? Do you have actual digestive problems? Can these digestive problems be solved with dietary modifications? Is your diet sufficient to foster a favorable environment in your digestive tract to allow good bacteria to grow and to starve bad bacteria? Most importantly, have you spoken with a doctor and/or dietitian you trust to determine if probiotics are appropriate for you? Do you know what dosage and bacteria strand(s) you should take? When during the day should you take probiotics? Before you eat? After you eat? In between meals?
We don't ask all of these questions to overwhelm you, just to illustrate that probiotics are more complex than you may think. They are also not a simple cure-all. You should approach them with caution, as you should all products you introduce into your body, and ask questions. Here are a few questions you can ask your doctor/dietitian:
- Do I need probiotics? If so, why?
- What bacteria strand(s) do you recommend?
- What dosage should I take? (Too high of a dose can actually harm the environment in your intestines and too little will be a waste of money).
- For how long should I take probiotics? Until symptoms subside? Indefinitely? Do I need to taper off of them?
If your health care provider can't answer these simple questions, we recommend finding a health care provider who can, and until then, to not introduce any supplements that alter the environment in your digestive tract into your body.
What Are Some Contraindications For Probiotics?
Probiotics, like many supplements making health claims, have not been well-studied, and when studied, they have often shown mixed results. In addition, the health claims they make are not regulated by the FDA. In fact, in the information on supplement oversight, the FDA explains that after the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act was signed into law in 1994, dietary supplements were no longer subject to the same regulations as foods and that "...dietary supplements do not need approval from FDA before they are marketed." Yikes!
Because probiotics are not well-documented as improving health and because the health claims companies make are not subject to FDA oversight, it is impossible to know at this point what all of the contraindications are for probiotic supplementation. We know of two that are very important to mention: Crohn's disease and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). These are only two that we tracked, so you should conduct your own Google search. And as always, ask your doctor or dietitian for more information.
As the researchers in an important study of Crohn's disease and probiotic use note, "Probiotics do not seem to be a therapeutic option for patients with Crohn's disease, either in the acute phase or for maintenance." If these findings are true (and they have not been disproven since this 2006 study), why would a patient take probiotics if have a Crohn's diagnosis? It is important to note that experts disagree on prescribing probiotics to patients with Crohn's. You should discuss with your health care provider if this is a concern of yours. You should support optimal digestive function in the body, not undermine it to cause more harm.
Why would SIBO be a contraindication to probiotic usage? Sometimes the simplest of explanations is correct. SIBO is an overgrowth of bacteria, so introducing more bacteria (whether defined as good or bad bacteria) can do more harm than good. According to one of our dietitian experts, sometimes probiotics are useful in SIBO, and sometimes they are not. Again, it is important to be an educated consumer and to find a health care provider whose recommendations you trust.
Whole Foods: The Foundation for Healthy Living
Optimal digestion provides a foundation for healthy living. With many digestive problems, a diet rich in whole foods can ease uncomfortable digestive symptoms. If you feel you need more help, find a knowledgeable health care provider and educate yourself. Digestion, the absorption of nutrients and expelling of waste products from the body, is extremely important to your overall health. If optimal health is your goal, educate and empower yourself. Partner with health care providers willing to listen to your concerns and work with you to find appropriate solutions.
Cheers to being educated and empowered consumers!