Probiotics: They’re being added to more food items and touted as solving a wide range of health problems, boosting body functions from your brain to your breathing to your bowels. But is this just another fad? What are probiotics anyway? And do they live up to all the hype?
Probiotics are actually bacteria – the “good” kind. Our bodies have trillions of these microorganisms, some harmful but the majority of them beneficial. “Good” bacteria help break down food and keep the “bad” bacteria at bay. Probiotic bacteria are found in cultured dairy foods like yogurt, fermented vegetables like kimchi and sauerkraut, and foods fortified with probiotic bacterial cultures. They’re also available in capsules.
So they’re easy to find and consume… but are they really the “miracle cure” many claim them to be?
What the research tells us
Although there is some indication from the research evidence that probiotics may help to treat many common health issues (including respiratory infections (1) and pneumonia (2)), so far, we can only say with confidence that probiotics are beneficial for improved digestive health.
Medications (especially antibiotics), stress, diet and other factors can alter the ratio of good to bad bacteria in your gut, causing infection and disease. This happens more often than you might think: antibiotics are one of the most prescribed medications in Canada and the US (and often prescribed unnecessarily… but that’s another story) (3;4). They’re important and effective in killing infection-causing bacteria, but they often end up killing a lot of good bacteria, upsetting that important balance and giving dangerous Clostridium difficile bacteria a chance to cause severe diarrhea and other bowel diseases, sometimes with fatal results (5).
That’s where probiotics – like Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus casei and Bifidobacterium lactis – come in. Research evidence shows that probiotics given to children and adults taking antibiotics successfully lowers the risk of C. difficile-associated diarrhea (6;7). Thanks to results from these and other studies, probiotics are now recommended and commonly prescribed for people who are taking antibiotics, particularly as they are relatively inexpensive and safe for most people (6).
There is also promising evidence that probiotics may also help in the treatment of other common gastrointestinal problems, including irritable bowel syndrome and chronic constipation (8), conditions that affect more than 10% of the adult population (9;10).
As we continue to learn more about the role probiotics play in promoting health, go ahead and enjoy your yogurt, especially if you are prescribed antibiotics. Consuming more probiotic-rich food isn't likely to cause harm, and very well may help keep your gut balanced and happy!
As for the other health benefits of probiotics? Time – and evidence from ongoing research – will tell.