by Ellen Blake
I can’t seem to get away from hearing people talk about probiotics. Friends who take daily probiotic supplements claim their digestion and immune system are stronger as a result. Others say these supplements also help with weight loss and mood. Sounds fabulous, but are the claims true?
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics, meaning “for life” (as opposed to antibiotics), refer to the “good” bacteria that are either the same as or very similar to the bacteria that are already in your body. A large complex community of these bacteria reside in your lower digestive tract and help keep your gut healthy. The trillions of bacteria in your intestines actually outnumber the number of cells in your entire body.
Current research shows the good bacteria in the intestine are more important for well-being than ever realized before, and keeping a balance between the good and the bad is important to maintain optimal health. “Bad” bacteria refers to the infectious kind, which is generally treated with antibiotics.
Beneficial probiotics can be obtained through food, which is the best place to start. Dietary sources include some yogurts, cheeses and other dairy products such as lactobacillus milk or kefir. (Note: make sure your yogurt is made from “live cultures” and sorry, no, frozen yogurt does not work as a probiotic.) They can also be found naturally in sauerkraut and kimchi, a traditional Korean food created by fermenting vegetables with probiotic lactic acid bacteria..
Alternatively, you can take a dietary probiotic supplement, which are available in tablet, capsule, powder, or liquid form. Lactobacillus species, Bifidobacteria, Saccharomyces boulardii and Bacillus coagulants are the beneficial bacteria most commonly used in over the counter probiotic supplement products. Some yeasts, such as Saccharmyces, can also act as probiotics. Here’s the catch – each type — and each strain of each type — can work in different ways. And all probiotic supplements are not created equal; the dose can vary in addition to the strain.
Do I Need to Take a Probiotic Dietary Supplement?
With all these benefits, why don’t we all take probiotic supplements? I which I could provide a definitive answer. But, here’s what I know.
Probiotics are a big and rapidly growing business and are among the most popular dietary supplements. These over the counter products may contain a single strain or many strains of probiotics, and the number of organisms in a daily dose can range from 1 billion to more than 250 billion. The FDA regulates these products, but does so as a food, not a drug. Manufacturers therefore can claim anything they want on their label and are not required to prove safety or effectiveness. Some labels confidently boast they contain unique probiotics and/or combinations of strains that promote the best possible health — and charge you a premium price for them.
We know all probiotics are not the same, nor do they all have the same effect in the body. The Lactobacilli, for instance, live in our digestive, urinary and genital systems, while Bifidobacteria normally live in the intestines as lactic acid bacteria. You want to make sure if you take a supplement you are taking one that is most likely to benefit you. If you decide to purchase a probiotic, try to find the following information on the label:
- The genus, species, and strain of the probiotic (Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, for example)
- The number of organisms that will be alive by the use-by date
- The dose
- The company name and contact information
If you can’t find this information on the label, you may be able to find it on the company’s website. While you’re there, look for studies that back up the product’s health claims.
Are there side effects to taking probiotic supplements?
Probiotics are safe in the amounts you normally find in food. In general, the majority of healthy adults can safely add foods or dietary supplements containing probiotics to their diets. A possible side effect might be gas (flatulence), which generally subsides after a few days. If you are lactose intolerant and trying to get your probiotics from dairy products, you can experience stomach discomfort. In that case, consider a dairy-free probiotic supplement. Some sources state a degree of sun-sensitivity is a side effect of taking probiotics. As per Dr. Paul Tobowlowsky, creator and lecturer for the Biology in the News course for the SAIL program at Collin College, “Probiotic supplements are not likely to be harmful, but the data proving them beneficial on a daily basis is still lacking.”
The Bottom Line?
Ask your doctor for their opinion before taking probiotic supplements. Dr. Tobowlowsky recommends probiotic supplements after a round of antibiotics, which kill both infectious and healthy bacteria. When healthy bacteria are eliminated, harmful bacteria flourishes, possibly causing diarrhea or other gastrointestinal issues. The probiotics will replenish the beneficial bacteria. He went on to say “However, I don’t recommend taking daily probiotic supplements for patients who don’t have digestive issues-why treat a non-problem?”
Not everyone agrees. In my opinion, more research is necessary to truly understand the widespread benefits and possible side affects of different probiotic strains. For now, as someone who does not like to take more pills on a regular basis than I absolutely need, the advice to take probiotics only after a round of antibiotics, and not daily, sounds good to me. What’s your opinion? Leave it in the comments below – we’d love to hear from you.