A decade ago, we didn’t hear much about probiotics. Sure, we had a vague sense that yogurt might be good for us, but most of us would have cited the calcium as its major benefit—not the live bacteria.
Fast-forward 10 years and these alleged superheroes are everywhere. Probiotics—also called good bacteria—occur naturally in only a handful of foods, like yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, raw cheese and miso. What’s new is that you will find them in dozens of supplements in the form of pills, powders and gummies. You also will see them added to a variety of food products, including chocolate, tea and even dog treats.
Probiotics often get credit for improving a host of health problems, including allergies, eczema, depression, bloating, acne, urinary tract infections and even asthma.
But do probiotics aid digestive health? And if so, what’s the best way to consume them?
The truth is that the study of probiotics is what you might call evolving. Dozens of studies have been done, but none have been large or comprehensive enough to reach a definitive conclusion. The National Institutes of Health warns that the “marketing and use of probiotics may have outpaced scientific research.” Further confusing the issue is that there are many types of probiotics.
Here is a sampling of what science is saying:
• One 2016 review of seven studies found no evidence that probiotic supplements have beneficial effects on the composition of gut bacteria in healthy adults.
• The Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility reported in 2017 that adults who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome found their condition improved after taking probiotic supplements.
• A 2017 University of Florida study of 173 healthy adults who suffer from seasonal allergies found that the half who took a combination of the probiotics lactobacilli and bifidobacteria (sold as Kyo-Dophilus in stores) reported fewer allergy-related nose symptoms.
• A 2017 study done by the University of Virginia School of Medicine found that eating lactobacillus, a probiotic bacteria found in live-culture yogurt, reversed depression symptoms in mice.
While science is still working out the veracity of various claims, it can’t hurt to increase your intake of foods that contain probiotics. Unless you’re into miso or fermented sauerkraut (not the regular kind you buy in a bag) the easiest way to do that is by consuming yogurt or kefir (a fermented milk smoothie found in the dairy section of most grocery stores). Just be sure to check the seal for “live and active cultures” and avoid products with excessive added sugar.
One thing most doctors agree on? It’s a great idea to consume more probiotics while on antibiotics, which take aim at all bacteria in your gut—both good and bad. For some, this results in antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Probiotics can help by building up your army of good bacteria more quickly.
A word of warning: Do not skip your usual medication because you hope probiotics might help you with depression or some other condition. And if you’re considering a probiotic supplement, you should consult your doctor first. That’s especially important if you are pregnant, nursing or planning to give the supplement to a child.
It’s all a little confusing, right? The reality is that while there is a lack of research, probiotics still have a lot of potential. If you think probiotic supplements might be right for you, make a note to discuss the issue with your doctor at your next appointment or, if you suffer from a digestive disorder, make an appointment with one of our experts to come up with a plan to improve your health and feel better.
P.S. Looking for a great kefir smoothie recipe? Combine 1 cup of plain kefir with half a frozen banana and a ½ cup of frozen blueberries. Throw in a dash of cinnamon (and a handful of spinach if you’re feeling sneaky) and blend. Delicious!