Probiotics: Do They Work? And What to Do if They Don't

For many people, various gastrointestinal issues come and go pretty much forever, causing chronic discomfort or worse. Could probiotics be the solution?

Walk past the dairy case or health food section of any grocery store and you’ll see a variety of yogurts, milk, shakes and even granola bars that say they contain probiotics. The supplement aisles of most pharmacies in the US are bursting with probiotics, too.

Probiotics are live microorganisms that are intended to have health benefits when consumed or applied to the body. They can be found in fermented foods, dietary supplements, and beauty products.

These “good” bacteria are added to products to promote a healthy environment of microorganisms in the digestive tract, supposedly to aid in digestion and promote good gastrointestinal health.

For many people, various gastrointestinal issues come and go pretty much forever, causing chronic discomfort or worse. Plenty of people take probiotics in food or supplements in the hope of boosting their digestive health.

But is popping pills and powders or eating yogurt really going to help with weight control, mood and digestion, or treating your allergies? Are these claims based in real science, or are they just another food fad to squeeze money out of consumers?

We have done some research – go on reading to find out the answers.

What exactly are probiotics?

Probiotics are essentially strains of bacteria that are thought to benefit your gastrointestinal tract. Our bodies are teeming with bugs that help to digest food, protect us from toxins, and keep the lining of our intestines healthy.

The microorganisms in probiotics products are the same as, or quite similar to, the microorganisms that normally live in our bodies (of which there are 100 trillion).

The truth is, most of the probiotics on the market today have not been through any sort of clinical trials to prove they do anything at all. And an even smaller number of them—virtually none—have gone through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before reaching consumers.

Medications must go through the FDA to ensure they are both safe and effective—meaning they've been proven to do what they say they do. Supplements that don't treat specific conditions aren't forced to go through this rigorous screening process. And somehow, probiotics have managed to nestle themselves into this rather nebulous category.

Highly individual

Probiotics have the potential to improve health, including by displacing potentially harmful bugs. The trouble is that the proven benefits involve a very small number of conditions.

Those somewhat promising results — for very specific uses of very specific strains of bacteria in very specific instances — are just about all the “positive” results you can find, experts report.

According to gastroenterologists and other scientists, for many people these tiny bugs might not be doing the jobs they claim to do.

A generic probiotic is not suitable for everyone, because the reasons for imbalance are highly individual, doctors say. Just as there is no such thing as a standard, universal antibiotic that cures all bacterial infections, there is no universal probiotic—no cure-all beneficial bug to fix your gut. Each person's gut is as unique as a fingerprint, and that can make it hard to isolate which bacteria are good and which are bad.

Many gastroenterologists do recommend probiotics, but it depends on the condition their patient has. It’s going to take a lot of time, effort, and research to figure out what bacterial strains help what conditions. Doctors say we may one day be able to design and purchase probiotic strains tailored to fix our problems, but we're not there yet. We need to be cautious and need much more information to proceed.

For certain conditions

So, the answer is complicated. Probiotics do work for some people, and some conditions: they’re helpful in treating irritable bowel syndrome, for instance, and other gastrointestinal illnesses. Cancer patients often take probiotics to help mitigate some of the side effects of treatment — particularly those that stem from chemotherapy.

For now, doctors say, it’s not necessary—or even prudent—to take probiotics if your digestive health is pretty good. But if you are keen on trying them, do it in a rational way, they add. After all, probiotics are still an experiment.

While it's hard to say whether probiotics will have any effect on a healthy microbiome, doctors think it's possible probiotics could help people who recently took antibiotics.

Probiotic may be most effective for the prevention and treatment of antibiotic-related diarrhea, traveler’s diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and eczema. A new review also found probiotics to be helpful to maintain gut, vaginal, and immune health.

But even then, your unique gene makeup, age, health, and bacteria you already have in your body, along with your diet – all affect how probiotics work.

In case of no result

What are the signs your probiotics are not working? And what can you do about it?

Here are a few reasons why a probiotic may not work:

  • The dose isn’t correct.
  • You aren’t taking it correctly (with food versus on an empty stomach). Read the label and follow the product directions on how to take it.
  • It’s the wrong strain. Not all strains work for every symptom. Find the right match based on proven studies.
  • The product quality is poor (live cultures). One of the biggest challenges with probiotics is their fragile nature. They must survive the process of manufacturing, storage, and your stomach acid in order to be effective in your intestines.
  • hey were stored improperly. Humidity, heat, and light can also affect probiotics negatively. Some may need to be refrigerated.

The condition or symptom you’re trying to treat can affect how the probiotic works and when you’ll see results. For example, if you’re taking a probiotic for relief from diarrhea, you’ll see faster results. If you’re taking a probiotic for general gut or immune health, you’ll need to take it longer to see results.

If a month of daily probiotic supplements don't make you feel noticeably better, it's probably not worth spending your hard-earned cash on these misunderstood bugs.

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