Walking into any grocery store, you are likely to find more than a few “probiotic” drinks brimming with the so-called beneficial bacteria that should supposedly treat everything from obesity to constipation to depression.
And from probiotic drinks to foods traditionally prepared with the live bacteria culture, the market now offers probiotic pills and capsules, granola bars, candy, cookies, sausages, cereals, fruit juices and even pet foods that allegedly contain the beneficial bacteria. Its popularity is so far and wide that manufacturers even added these microorganisms to mattresses and cosmetics.
What probiotic really means?
We usually think of bacteria as germs which can cause disease. However, there are a whole set of good bacteria that does wonders on your overall health.
Probiotics are live yeast and bacteria which are good for you, particularly for your digestive system. And they are linked to several health benefits.
However, a closer look at the science of these organisms shows us that most of the health claims for probiotics are pure hype. With a majority of studies failing to reveal any benefits in individuals who already have a healthy gut.
Here is some truth about probiotics:
1. Not All Probiotic Drinks And Foods Are Created Equal
According to a pediatric professor and Chief of Global Health at Boston’s Mass General Hospital for Children, Dr. Patricia Hibberd, dairy products usually have the most probiotics and the number of live bacteria in these products are quite good.
In order to have billions of good bacteria in a single serving, choose products that are labeled “active and live cultures”. Some other probiotic-rich products include fermented milk drink, kefir, and aged cheese like Swiss, Parmesan, Gouda, and cheddar.
Beyond dairy products, probiotics are also found in miso, tempeh, kimchi sauerkraut, and pickles. Then there are those that seemingly just jumped on the probiotics bandwagon which is not naturally cultures or fermented, however, may or may not supply live organisms. These include probiotic-enriched juices, snack bars, and cereals.
Although most probiotic drinks and food are safe for most people, the biggest concern is whether the beneficial organism is actually present on the food. In some cases, the organisms may have died and decayed, making it less active and offer fewer health benefits.
2. Probiotic Drinks Might Not Be Safe For Everyone
Seemingly harmless, probiotic drinks and food items are still not for everyone. There are definitely some people who need to avoid probiotics. These include individuals with weakened immune systems like cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy.
Risks are also increased for people who have undergone organ transplants and for individuals who have had much of their gastrointestinal tract removed due to a disease. Also, hospitalized individuals with central IV lines need to avoid probiotics, as well as those who have abnormal heart valves or just had heart valve surgery since there is a small risk of infection.
3. Bacteria Quality And Quantity
Manufacturers of probiotics usually select particular bacterial strains for their drinks and products since they know how to grow them in huge numbers and not because they can adapt to the human gut and improve health.
In addition, the particular strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium which are usually found in most probiotic drinks might not be the same type which can survive the highly acidic environment of the stomach and from there colonize the gut.
And even if some bacteria did survive and propagate the intestine, there’s only a few of them t significantly change the overall composition of your internal ecosystem. Whereas the human has tens of trillions of bacteria, the typical probiotic drinks only contain between 100 million and a few hundred billion.
4. Real Benefits
Despite the growing realization that probiotics don’t offer anything of substance to individuals who are in tip-top shape, research actually documented a few benefits of probiotics to some people with certain conditions.
For one, several studies have concluded that probiotics can indeed help prevent some common side effects of antibiotic treatments. Antibiotics, as we all know it, destroy entire communities of bacteria in the intestine— good or bad— along with whatever problem-causing microbes that they are trying to destroy.
The body normally just needs to grab a few bacteria from the environment in order to re-establish a healthy gut microbiome. However, sometimes, harmful bacteria tend to populate it first, causing inflammation and triggering diarrhea.
Drinking probiotic drink can help reduce these instances and prevent the risk of infections.
Probiotic also seems to ease irritable bowel syndrome which is a chronic disease characterized by constipation, bloating and abdominal pain. A 2014 review of over 30 studies revealed that probiotics can actually help relieve the symptoms for unclear reasons, although it might be the reason they halt the growth of harmful microbes.
Probiotics are also studied for other conditions. However, there is not as much research yet, but some claimed that probiotics can help with:
- Treating and preventing urinary tract infection
- Treating and preventing yeast infections
- Skin conditions such as eczema
- Lactose intolerance
- Treating certain respiratory and stomach infections, particularly in children
- Decreasing inflammation, like those from rheumatoid arthritis
- Treating asthma and allergies