Are Probiotic Supplements Effective?
Written by Nanette Ho, Registered Dietitian
There are a handful of areas where certain probiotic strains have shown significant effect (more research is needed). These include:
Antibiotic-associated diarrhea: more recently, quality studies have been able to show that certain strains of probiotics (L. rhamnosus and S. boulardii in adults; LGG, L. sporogens or S. boulardii in children) can help with antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
However, the ideal dosage still remains unclear. Talk to your doctor if this relates to you.
Irritable bowel syndrome: there is only fair evidence to show that some strains can help with IBS symptoms, and it can depend on the type of IBS you have (diarrhea type, constipation type, or both). I personally have a few friends and colleagues who sing praises about certain probiotic products for these issues, so it may be worth considering on a case-by-case basis. Again, talk to your doctor if this relates to you.
Traveler’s diarrhea: more research is required to provide adequate evidence that probiotics can help prevent traveler’s diarrhea. Its effectiveness may also depend on the type of gut infection involved and your travel destination. I wouldn’t rely on this. Your best bet is to avoid raw and undercooked foods, unwashed fruits and vegetables and iced beverages. Consult a travel clinic!
Others: the scientific jury is still out on whether probiotic supplements can be helpful (if at all) for issues like acne, lactose intolerance, anxiety, depression, and chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity and cancer. Many of these conditions have been linked to disrupted gut microbiota, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a disrupted gut microbiota is a main cause of these problems, or that probiotic supplements are the answer.
So, what is the verdict: Are Probiotic Supplements Effective?
Probiotics are very marketable products because of their exciting potential for a variety of ailments. Media and the business industry love a “holy grail” answer to health problems—I mean, who wouldn’t? While there’s good reason for the increasing amount of research in this area, it looks like science has yet to provide adequate evidence to support the promotion of routine probiotic supplement use in the general population.
Probiotic supplements may not be the miracle supplement to supercharge your health or to make up for unhealthy lifestyle choices when it comes to disease prevention. An unsatisfying answer no doubt, but until we know more, perhaps it’s better to be realistic about where we can best direct our health endeavours and money! Let’s not forget one of the biggest practical barriers to using probiotic supplements—the cost.
For many, it may outweigh any potential benefit.
Why is it so hard to give a firm answer?
It is still a challenge for researchers to ascertain specific strains at specific dosages to effectively target health problems. This is partly due to the fact that products on the market vary widely and the regulation of these products remains lacking.
The mechanisms by which these probiotics exert effects are unconfirmed, thus leaving a little too much room for uncertainty. Nevertheless, research in probiotics is one I’m curious to watch unfold.
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