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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Do you need probiotics?

You are watching TV and an ad comes on for a probiotic product.  Or you see an ad for yogurt promoting the benefits of probiotics.  Do you need to ensure you get some probiotics every day?  Are there really health benefits to probiotics? 

What are probiotics?   Probiotics are friendly bacteria that are promoted as having health benefits.  Probiotics can come in many forms, tablets and capsules and in foods like yogurt.  There are different types of bacteria in probiotics.  Two of the most common bacteria promoted are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, but there are other strains as well.  Each strain can have different health benefits.  Some probiotic products contain only one strain of bacteria, while other products provide many strains.  The amount of bacteria also varies.  Some product offer 1 billion organisms in a daily dose while others offer 250 billion organisms in a daily dose. 

Does one need probiotics for their health?: 
Many of us have seen commercials promoting the use of probiotics as supplements or in foods such as yogurt.  They have become a big business and sales could rise to $42 billion annually across the globe by 2016.  Probiotics are promoted to:

  • Improve digestion
  • Strengthen one’s immunity
  • Promote weight loss
  • General health

Are the healthy claims of probiotics true?  We already have probiotic bacteria in our large intestine.  In fact we have about 400 different types of probiotic bacteria.    These bacteria serve useful functions such as keeping the “bad” bacteria in check.  Our existing bacteria help in immunity, digest food and aid in the absorption of nutrients.
Digestive health – there is some support in the literature for probiotics supporting digestive health, especially after taking a course of antibiotics.  When we take antibiotics, we kill off the offending bacteria but also kill off a lot of the good bacteria in our large intestine.  This can result in bouts of diarrhea.  Taking probiotics after taking antibiotics can help prevent this diarrhea.  Those diagnosed with ulcerative colitis or inflammatory bowel disease may also benefit from probiotics.  Probiotics can help people be regular. 
Immunity – studies have shown that probiotics is linked to a better immune system.  However, studies are inconsistent in showing that probiotics actually prevent colds or the flu.   
Weight loss – again studies vary as to whether or not probiotics can promote weight loss.  One study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2011 noted those taking fermented milk (containing lactobillus gasseri) every day for 12 weeks lost some fat in their abdomens and some weight.  A different study of people consuming yogurt resulted in some body fat loss but no weight loss. 
So probiotics may have some health benefits.  For most of us, probiotics are not harmful.  People have used cultured milk products throughout history.  However, more study is needed on probiotic use and safety for those with compromised immune systems, pregnant women and small children.  
Those who are lactose intolerant may be able to tolerate some yogurt as the bacteria in the yogurt digest some of the lactose or milk sugar in the yogurt.  

Probiotics: pros and cons.  Wellness Letter, University of California, Berkeley, March 2013.

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