The Truth About What Probiotics Can (and Cannot) Do for You

Can swallowing a few billion bacteria a day really be good for your health?

It sounds crazy, but that’s exactly what consuming probiotics (from pro and biota, meaning “for life”) is all about: probiotics are living microscopic organisms, or microorganisms, that may benefit your health. Most often they are bacteria, but they may also be other organisms such as yeasts. In some cases they are similar, or the same, as the “good” bacteria already in your body, particularly those in your gut. These good bacteria are part of the trillions of microorganisms that inhabit your body.

As more people seek natural or non-drug ways to maintain their health, manufacturers have responded by offering probiotics in everything from yogurt to chocolate and granola bars to powders and capsules. Those “live active cultures” in several brands of yogurt may have been around for years, but the sheer number of products with probiotics nowadays is amazing.

Why is this happening?

In recent years, scientists have developed a greater understanding of the important roles played by the 100 trillion or so bacteria the average person carries. Instead of focusing on how to kill bacteria with soap and antibiotics, as we have done for decades, researchers are realizing that our relationship with our bacteria is more complicated: some can make us sick, while others help to break down the nutrients in our food and fight off food poisoning.

With this new understanding of the importance of the microorganisms in our bodies comes the idea of giving our gut bacteria a helping hand, which is where probiotics come in. In fact, the potential of probiotics has become so convincing that the projected global value of the probiotics market for next year is $28.8 billion. That’s a lot of money! Is a daily dose of live bacteria really worth that much?

How Do Probiotics Work?

Scientists are not exactly sure how probiotics work, but according to the American Gastroenterological Association, they may:

  • Boost your immune system by enhancing the production of antibodies to certain vaccines.
  • Produce substances that prevent infection.
  • Prevent harmful bacteria from attaching to the gut lining and growing there.
  • Send signals to your cells to strengthen the mucus in your intestine and help it act as a barrier against infection.
  • Inhibit or destroy toxins released by certain “bad” bacteria that can make you sick.
  • Produce B vitamins necessary for metabolizing the food you eat, warding off anemia caused by deficiencies in B6 and B12, and maintaining healthy skin and a healthy nervous system.

Of course, these are only “maybes.”

Success Stories

The best evidence to support the use of probiotics is for reducing cases of infectious diarrhea, especially that associated with the use of antibiotics. Around 30 percent of patients given antibiotics get diarrhea, with potentially serious symptoms. When scientists at the California-based Rand research organization combined the results of 63 studies, they found people who took probiotics alongside antibiotics almost halved their risk of diarrhea.

Probiotic therapy may also help people with Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Clinical trial results are mixed, but several small studies suggest that certain probiotics may help prevent relapse of Crohn’s disease and maintain remission of ulcerative colitis.

Another area where their success has been documented is in aiding digestion, by helping to regulate the movement of food through the intestine. They also may help treat digestive disease.

Questions for the Future

While there are many indications of the success of probiotics, there is little or no evidence to support the many other health claims made for probiotics, such as helping with weight loss, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, and preventing or alleviating skin conditions, urinary tract infections, anxiety and depression.

More research is needed to determine how useful probiotics really are. Whether probiotics can be used to treat diseases, whether they are safe to use for a long time, or if it is possible to take too many probiotics are all questions that still remain to be answered.

It is also important to remember that probiotics are considered dietary supplements and are not FDA-regulated like drugs. They are not standardized, meaning they are made in different ways by different companies and have different additives. How well a probiotic works may differ from brand to brand and even from batch to batch within the same brand.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

97 comments

Jerome S
Jerome S1 years ago

thanks

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Jerome S
Jerome S1 years ago

thanks

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Jim Ven
Jim V1 years ago

thanks for sharing

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Jim Ven
Jim V1 years ago

thanks for sharing

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Jim Ven
Jim V2 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell4 years ago

Thank you for sharing

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Sonia Minwer Barakat Requ

Good to know Thanks for sharing

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4 years ago

Thanks

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Angela AWAY K.
Angela K4 years ago

Thank you

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Charlie Rush
Charlene Rush4 years ago

Probiotics are part of my life, since, as we age, very few body parts work as they should.

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