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Probiotics, Weight Loss and Digestive Health

Have you considered any
of these "probiotic" products?

Probiotics can be loosely defined as, "Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host." Essentially it's good bacteria inserted into food.

The belief is that modern factory processing kills all the beneficial bacteria, so companies need to inject it back into food. It was primarily done with yogurt and dietary supplements, but the market has exploded in recent years and now you can find probiotics in pizza, cereals, muffins and even chocolate.

The theory behind how probiotics work is simple. Good bacteria crowd out the bad. Over time that has evolved and scientists now believe probiotics can do many things, including reducing harmful inflammation, providing relief from diarrhea and controlling allergies.

There are two big problems. As of December 2012, only preliminary evidence exists for the health claims that many companies are making. That doesn't mean they don't work, just that very few of the claims are backed up by effective products and valid research.

The second problem is that like any supplement, probiotics are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. They're a food supplement, so consumers must rely solely on the integrity of the manufacturers. Where science is unsure, marketing takes over and companies make claims that range from simple exaggerations to outright lies.

Many articles on probiotics are written as testimonials. "Here's what probiotics have done for me, therefore they should do exactly the same for you." Unfortunately, everybody is different, so what works for one may be deadly for another. What we need are clear, clinical trials that test specific probiotics on controlled groups of people to determine proper dosages and effects. Until that happens, here are a few things to be wary of.

Lie #1 - Probiotics help with weight loss. Supposedly probiotics alter the way we digest calories, including how rapidly digestion works. By speeding up the process you can burn excess fat off. Unfortunately, any beneficial effect you get from a serving of probiotic laced food can be eliminated with an extra bite of anything that has calories. A single serving of traditional sugar-filled yogurt contains more calories than any probiotic has ever been shown to eliminate.

Lie #2 -– Probiotics help boost your immunity. In very small studies, probiotics have been shown to increase T-cells, part of the bodies defense system against viruses. But there are no studies that show that boost can do things like fight off the flu or protect you from other pathogens. If you want immunity, get a flu shot.

Lie #3 -– Probiotics can help protect against cancer. The anti-cancer claims are often followed by referencing a large-scale study that looked at dietary and cancer data from more than 82,000 Swedish men and women over nine years. Yogurt eaters had a lower percentage risk of developing bladder cancer. However, data from Asian studies found that men who ate more fermented (and probiotic-rich) foods daily had higher risks of prostate and stomach cancer. Neither study strictly compared similar groups of people where one group was given a probiotic food while the control was given the same food without probiotics.

Researchers thought multivitamins were beneficial for decades, until large-scale studies proved them wrong. Several vitamins turned out to be dangerous when taken in pill form. We urge caution with probiotics as well.

There are some things probiotics can do. The bacteria does help people with lactose intolerance eat things like yogurt of kefir without as many digestion problems. Probiotics can also help cure C. difficile.

To make sure you're getting what's appropriate, ask your doctor for specific species and strains of probiotics that are proven to help with the condition you have. Only buy products with the strain your doctor recommends.

Finally, check the package expiration date. Probiotics are living organisms and if you don't use them in time, their effectiveness may be diminished or rendered worthless.

UPDATE 7/1/2020

Seven years after we wrote this article, there is STILL no evidence that probiotics in commercial foods and supplements are beneficial. There was a recent study that found people who took probiotics to help repopulate the gut after taking antibiotics, SLOWED DOWN how fast the gut recovered.

We still recommend getting your probiotics by eating healthy servings of fruit and vegetables, or with doctor-prescribed treatments.

UPDATE 10/4/2020

According to the Amerian Gastroenterological Association (AGA), probiotics aren't the wonder supplements companies have market them as. Here's what the AGA says:

Two important conclusions that clinicians can take away. First, the Institute found moderate evidence that probiotics do not reduce the duration or severity of diarrhea in children with acute infectious gastroenteritis. Ironically, diarrhea in children was one of the original indications for potential therapy using probiotics more than 100 years ago. However, only a minority of the studies tested strains of Bifidobacteria suggested by Tissier.

In contrast, there was moderate to high level of evidence that probiotics containing different strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium genera were beneficial in preventing necrotizing enterocolitis, the most frequent and devastating gastrointestinal disease in preterm, low birthweight newborns and mitigating its complications.

it is imperative that health care providers not fall prey to seductive advertising and meaningless structure/function claims.

UPDATE 2/23/2021

This information is from a press release issued on June 9, 2020 by the American Gastroenterological Association. However, we were only made aware of it on 2/23/2021 and so that's the date this page was updated. The text below is taken directly from that press release.

AGA does not recommend the use of probiotics for most digestive conditions

New AGA guideline finds that evidence to support use of probiotics to treat digestive diseases is greatly lacking, identifying only three clinical scenarios where current data suggests that probiotics may benefit patients.

There was insufficient evidence to recommend probiotics for treatment of Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and C. difficile infection. For acute infectious gastroenteritis in children, AGA recommends against the use of probiotics.

“Patients taking probiotics for Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis or IBS should consider stopping,” says guideline panel chair Grace L. Su from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “The supplements can be costly and there isn’t enough evidence to prove a benefit or confirm lack of harm. Talk with your doctor.”

The guideline supports use of certain probiotic formulations in three settings: for the prevention of Clostridioides difficile (C. difficile) infection in adults and children taking antibiotics, for the prevention of necrotizing enterocolitis in preterm, low birthweight infants, and for the management of pouchitis, a complication of inflammatory bowel disease.

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Updated 12/4/2015
Updated 7/1/2020
Updated 10/4/2020
Updated 11/14/2020
Updated 2/23/2021

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