Probiotics are of limited use
As a nurse, I often give patients the advice to eat yogurt when taking antibiotics to decrease the risk of developing diarrhea or, in women, vaginal yeast infections.
Why yogurt? Because it contains live, beneficial micro-organisms—now called probiotics—that are thought to replenish the “good” bacteria incidentally killed when taking antibiotics. In theory, eating yogurt makes sense. At best, it helps; at worse, you get a tasty snack with some extra calcium.
In the last few years, however, I have seen probiotic-laced products (fortified yogurt, snack bars, capsules) account for an increasingly large part of the multi-billion dollar supplement industry. Such popularity begs the question—do they really work, and do we really need a daily supplement?
Save your money
Our intestines contain hundreds of strains of beneficial bacteria. Our GI systems are complex and fascinating, and under normal circumstances they work just fine.
I read an informative post about probiotics on the Science-Based Medicine blog. The author, Dr. Mark Crislip, an infectious disease doc, takes exception to the basic premise that we need to restore and balance our “normal gut bacteria.” According to him, such bacteria are already everywhere—“The food, your spouse, the world are covered in a thin patina of gastrointestinal bacteria, so you are always repleting your bacterial flora orally.” Yum.
Supplemental products, however, usually contain just one bacteria strain, and not necessarily one that is normally found in our intestines.
Related post: “Farmacology”
Dr. Crislip does believe there is data to support taking probiotics—he suggests yogurt— to prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea, but not to treat diarrhea that is the result of an infection, such as Salmonella.
He also doesn’t consider probiotic supplements useful to boost our immune systems, as many of these products claim.
At the drug store, I saw dozens of brands of probiotic capsules. Every box and bottle uses a combination of vague words such as helps, builds, maintains, boosts and supports.
Each product also carries an identical disclaimer: This statement has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
Related post: The Quack Miranda Warning
Hmm. They don’t put that in big letters on the front of the package, do they?
In his post, Dr. Crislip concludes: “If you are a normal human, with a normal diet, save your money. Probiotics have nothing to offer but an increased cost.”
That is true. Each product I looked at costs about $30 for a 30-day supply, and of course you are directed to take one capsule every day. That adds up to about $350 a year!
I hate taking pills, but I like yogurt, and I eat it for its nutritional value rather than just my colon’s health (although good nutrition is connected with a healthy colon) .
Dannon’s probiotic yogurt, Activia, claims to be creamy and delicious, and that I can believe. I don’t believe it has any enhanced benefit over regular yogurt, however, so I will continue to choose my yogurt based on taste, ingredients (the fewer, the better) and cost.