If you are thinking of taking a probiotic, there are a lot of considerations that you’ll want to keep in mind before starting a regular regimen. Different products have different effects, and some are of higher quality than others. Here are just a few of the factors to think about when determining if probiotics are right for you.
What is a Probiotic?
A probiotic is a live microorganism (usually a type of bacteria) that is designed to provide some sort of benefit to your health. You can find it in various types of foods, such as yogurt and sauerkraut, or you can purchase it as a supplement. Many stores have powders and drinks that contain these microorganisms, but the most popular way to introduce a probiotic into your system is through a capsule.
These microorganisms are important, in that they help the digestive system work properly and also produce the vitamins our bodies need. Most people think that bacteria are harmful, but they actually perform several different beneficial roles. There are trillions of them in the human body – so many, in fact, that they outnumber cells by a 10 to 1 margin.
But there are good bacteria as well as bad bacteria. The good ones tend to get overshadowed, because the bad ones can cause diseases and other serious health problems. When the number of harmful bacteria outnumber the beneficial bacteria, that’s when issues can occur. The microorganisms found in probiotic products are meant to make sure the body maintains a proper balance between good and bad bacteria.
This balance can be disturbed by an illness or by taking antibiotics. While antibiotics have helped save a great many lives by destroying harmful bacteria, they also kill beneficial bacteria as well. Probiotics are designed to replenish the number of good bacteria in the body.1
The concept of the probiotic has actually been around for more than 100 years. Scientists touted the benefits of introducing beneficial microorganisms to the body in the early 20th century, stating that doing so could significantly improve a person’s health.
While a probiotic can contain many types of microorganisms, two of the more common ones are in the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus families of bacteria. Some products contain yeasts as well.
Does the Science Back Up Manufacturers’ Claims?
There are many different types of probiotic products available, and they are growing in popularity. Recent surveys suggest as many as 4 million adults use them on a regular basis in the U.S. alone. They’re so popular, in fact, that they are the third most popular dietary supplement behind vitamins and minerals.2
There are a lot of claims being made about the health benefits of probiotics, and people are obviously buying in. But, are these claims legitimate? For example, many manufacturers say that introducing beneficial microorganisms into the body can help reduce digestive symptoms, such as diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and many others.
While a great deal more research needs to be performed, so far the science seems to back up those claims. Preliminary evidence is showing that there are some probiotic products that can help prevent diarrhea and lessen the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.3 But much more extensive study is needed into certain areas, such as which probiotics on the market are beneficial and which aren’t? Also, it’s not very clear as to what type of dosage a person would need to take in order to obtain benefits.
In addition, it’s very important to note that not all microorganisms are the same. One type of Lactobacillus bacterium, for example, might help reduce symptoms of a certain illness. But that doesn’t mean that all bacteria in that group will have the same effect.
What Does the Government Say?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any sort of probiotic product for treating or preventing any kind of health issue.
Regulation of probiotics is relatively complex. The FDA classifies certain products as drugs, food ingredients, or dietary supplements, depending on their specific use. The majority of probiotics are classified as dietary supplements, which do not need to be approved by the FDA before they are introduced to the market. No supplement company may make any type of health claim (such as that a product can lower the risk of developing a disease) without consent from the FDA. However, manufacturers can claim that a product can have a beneficial effect on a particular function of the body.
Any company claiming that its product can be used to specifically treat a health issue will have to meet extremely stringent FDA requirements. It must be determined that the product has demonstrated effectiveness through clinical trials before it will be approved by the FDA.
Are Probiotics Safe?
Most probiotic products on the market have been shown to be safe for people who are in overall good health. They may cause minor digestive issues such as gas, if anything. But if you have a serious underlying health problem, you need to be very careful. Some people with certain conditions have reported severe infections and other major side effects. It appears that the people who are at the highest risk are those who have recently had major surgery, are critically ill, or have compromised immune systems. Side effects have also been reported in infants who were already very sick before taking a probiotic.4
Again, the jury is still largely out as to certain safety questions. The Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains appear to be safe, but there hasn’t been as much research performed into other bacterial strains that are sometimes included in probiotics.
As a result, it’s very important that you speak with your doctor before you take any sort of probiotics – especially if you aren’t generally healthy. Your physician may need to monitor you closely if you’ve had health issues and are interested in taking a probiotic on a regular basis. You will also need to speak with a healthcare professional if you’re pregnant, nursing a child, or you are thinking of giving a probiotic to a child.
Whether you’re healthy or not, give your doctor a full picture of any other medicines or supplements you are taking to stay on the safe side.