Do Probiotic Supplements Have Any Health Benefits?
Supplement companies claim that prebiotics (which are one thing) and probiotics (another thing!) can strengthen your immunity, aid weight loss, and even add years to your life.
And these same companies–dangling these life-enhancing properties in the form of an easy-to-swallow pill, potion, or delicious lil’ gummy—also charge a pretty penny for their products.
First, it’s important to understand that despite all the buzz around prebiotic and probiotic supplements, the scientific research behind their benefits is actually relatively new.
And, for that very reason, it’s tough to draw conclusive evidence that taking a supplement can deliver any of these benefits. A lot of the lingo you’ll find on supplement labels is marketing—and not much more.
But that’s not to say there isn’t some promise in the scientific field about what these supplements may be able to do—”may” being the key word here. So consider biotic supplements a “space to watch.”
To reinforce this theme, and to dig into the differences between the two forms of bacteria (yes, prebiotics and probiotics are actual living bacteria), the benefits that either (or neither) may have, and whether or not you should consider taking them, we turned to the smartest experts in academic gastrointestinal research for a gut check.
For the record, that’s Jack Gilbert, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of California, San Diego, and Bethany Doerfler, R.D., a clinical research dietitian at Northwestern University.
Allow them to lead you through the small but wonderous world of (potentially) mighty microorganisms.
What are probiotics?
Simply put, probiotics are bacteria that are good for our bodies, especially our digestive systems. Good and bad bacteria are already in our guts, but probiotics help more of the good kind grow and prevent the bad kind from increasing. They’re found in foods like yogurt, kimchi and sauerkraut, but companies are now making chips, chocolate, and supplements filled with good-for-your-gut bacteria.
It’s well-known that the digestive system is important to overall health. But now, researchers are trying to learn whether gut health is linked to our ability to lose weight, or even our mental health.
Do you need to take probiotic supplements?
Honestly, we don’t really know yet. While there is nascent research indicating that probiotics may have a variety of benefits, from clearing up acne to preventing colds, if you’re in overall good health, there’s not enough conclusive evidence to suggest that probiotic supplements will do anything for you.
The research is “in the pipeline,” but it’s “not there yet,” gastroenterology clinical researcher Bethany Doerfler of Northwestern’s School of Medicine explains to MensHealth.com.
For this reason, many doctors are hesitant to recommend specific probiotic supplements, bacteria strains, or dosages. For most people, focusing on your diet is the best way to ensure you have a healthy gut, Doerfler says. (For more tips on how to do that, click here.)
So are probiotic supplements totally useless?
Well, not exactly. If you have certain gastrointestinal issues, some doctors may advise patients to take probiotic supplements in addition to your regular course of treatment, says gastroenterologist Dr. David Poppers, clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine.
1) If you’re taking antibiotics.
Even though they’re often medically necessary, antibiotics can disrupt the good bacteria in your gut, thus wreaking havoc on your digestive system. Taking probiotics before, during, and after taking antibiotics could help prevent common side effects like diarrhea, Poppers says. He recommends taking probiotics containing the saccharomyces bacteria strain prior to starting antibiotics, and to continue for at least a few days after your course of treatment is done.
2) If you have ulcerative colitis.
A chronic disease causing inflammation and ulcers in the lining of the large intestines and rectum, ulcerative colitis is marked by symptoms like bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fatigue. While people with ulcerative colitis can take anti-inflammatory medication to manage discomfort, Poppers says there is some research to suggest that the supplement VSL#3, a combination of eight different Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus and Streptococcus bacteria strains, could help in addition to traditional treatment.
In extreme cases, people with ulcerative colitis may have their large intestine and rectum removed and replaced with surgically made pouches to store their stool. Some doctors may also recommend probiotics to prevent inflammation.
3) If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Additionally, Poppers says some people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition that affects an estimated 7 to 16 percent of the U.S. population, have reported that taking probiotics has alleviated their symptoms, including gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. But he’s quick to note that the data is far from conclusive, and that he doesn’t recommend one type of probiotic for all IBS patients.
“IBS is very complex. What may work for your neighbor may not work for you,” he explains. “A lot of trial and error is necessary, and that’s OK.”
Bottom line: if you have any of the above issues, it’s possible that probiotic supplements, in addition to your regular course of treatment, may help manage your symptoms. But if you’re in otherwise good health, taking probiotic supplements probably won’t do much for you. And if you have a weakened immune system from steroid use, chemotherapy, or complications from HIV, you probably want to avoid them altogether, as they may put you at risk of bacterial infection, Poppers says.
At the end of the day, it’s best to talk with your doctor to determine if taking a probiotic is right for you.