It may seem hard to believe, but the human digestive system contains about 100 trillion microorganisms, commonly known as bacteria. While we often think of bacteria as harmful, many gut bacteria are actually beneficial. In fact, researchers have found that some of the bacteria in our digestive system help us digest food, make vitamins, and even help protect against disease – causing pathogens.
What’s less well understood is whether probiotics – live “helpful” bacteria contained in yogurt, some fermented foods, supplements, and now even in some specialty drinks, can improve our health.
The good news is that there’s early evidence that some strains of probiotics may help certain conditions including diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and even obesity. However, more studies are needed to understand how probiotics work, which strains are most effective, and in what dosage.
So, before you run off to your local drugstore or supermarket in search of probiotic supplements or food, here are a few important factors to keep in mind:
1. Probiotics in supplements are not regulated by the FDA. There are no standardized amounts of bacteria or minimum levels required in foods or supplements, so there’s no guarantee that what it says on the box or the label is what you’re really getting. And since only specific strains, in large enough quantities, can treat some conditions, what you think is a health-smart purchase could really just be a waste of money.
2. In general, probiotics have few side effects in healthy people. However, the data on safety, particularly long-term safety, are limited, and the risk of serious side effects may be greater in people who have serious health conditions or are immune-compromised.
3. Probiotic supplements and foods can be pricey. According to a recent study by consumerlab.com, some probiotic supplements can cost more than $ 1 a day. And as noted above, supplements aren’t regulated, so you may be getting nothing for your money.
4. If you’re already healthy, there is no evidence that taking probiotics will make you ‘super’ healthy. So before even considering a friendly bacteria food or supplement, ask yourself what you might need it for.
The Bottom Line:
The early research on probiotics is promising; however don’t look to these friendly bacteria as a cure-all. And if you’re healthy, you probably don’t need them at all. If you think you might benefit from probiotics, be sure to check with your doctor first. While they may help some conditions for some people, there could be more effective medical alternatives, and in some instances, probiotics might be a waste of money.