Not only are probiotics touted across the media, they’ve seemingly begun to crop up in just about every processed food on the market these days.
But are they worth their growing reputation as a miracle health remedy? Both the family practice physicians and the internal medicine specialists at The Medical Group of South Florida are hearing this question from our patients more and more often.
First let’s look at what probiotics are. 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, illness, poor diet, and use of antibiotics.
Actually, that last effect is what ignited the probiotic craze. It’s been observed for years that the use of prescribed 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 causing 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.
To confuse the issue even further, the latest craze associated with good bacteria are the “prebiotics,” or foods containing the nourishment that will encourage the growth of naturally occurring probiotics. Such foods include garlic and onions, whole grains, legumes, bananas, honey, and artichokes.
And this is actually the optimal way to obtain both pro- and prebiotics. Dietary supplements are not subject to the same stringent testing and approval process as drugs, and are largely unregulated. Therefore, there’s no way to verify these products’ claims of what types of probiotics they contain, or how many. The latest figures available estimate annual global sales of these products total nearly $50 billion.
Furthermore, they can sometimes induce the very side effects they are attempting to alleviate, from gas and bloating to diarrhea, although these effects are usually short term. And because they can stimulate the immune system or compromise normal carbohydrate metabolism, they are not for everybody, especially pregnant women, infants, and young children, or those with compromised immune systems. In addition, “probiotic” is a catch-all term for different strains of good bacteria that have different effects, and it’s difficult to keep abreast of the various kinds and claims.
Therefore, as is usual with any supplement, it’s best to receive the beneficial effects through a healthy diet rather than through popping pills. And, as always, check with your primary care doctor before beginning a regimen of self-dosing of these or any other supplement.