This is one you’ve probably heard of, and think of as universally positive — everyone knows probiotics, or healthy microorganisms, are good for you, right? Not so fast. While doctors do sometimes recommend probiotics, they don’t recommend them for everyone, in every circumstance, forever.
Just like vitamins, they can cost a bundle of money and do absolutely nothing for some people or in certain circumstances.
“Probiotics have been promised to cure everything,” said Dr. Fola May, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor at UCLA. “From irritable bowel syndrome to constipation to abdominal pains, ingestion, to lactose intolerance, I’ve seen every reason in the book. Even allergies. But the reality is the data just don’t support that they universally help you.”
Probiotics are live microorganisms intended to improve health by adding more “good” bacteria or yeasts to your teeming microbiome — the trillions of organisms living in your gut that help everything from food digestion to immune regulation.
The thing is the probiotics industry is largely unregulated and there is no consistent proof of clinical efficacy, according to the American Gastroenterological Association’s guidelines on probiotics despite the increased interest and promise in probiotics as an effective way to beneficially alter the gut microbiome.
May and Staller agreed that while taking probiotics likely won’t cause you any harm, they generally do not recommend them as a course of action because they can be expensive and there’s a lack of conclusive evidence they always work. (In general, studies have had mixed results and looked at numerous different strains.)
There has been some stronger proof that probiotics can be helpful for those with antibiotic-associated diarrhea, traveler’s diarrhea, or C. diff (a potentially life-threatening germ that causes severe diarrhea and inflammation of the colon), according to Nancee Jaffe, a gastrointestinal dietitian at UCLA. One of the most common conditions that probiotics are thought to help is IBS, although again, the evidence is mixed.
If you’d like to take one, Jaffe advises trying it for about two months.
If you haven’t noticed any improvement after that amount of time, you might stop taking them since probiotics don’t always have the right strains to be therapeutic and you don’t want to be taking any unnecessary or ineffective supplement.
Jaffe also suggested opting for prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods whenever possible. She said that fermented foods like kimchi, miso, and sauerkraut have been shown to cause a reduction in inflammatory markers. Kefirs, kombuchas, and yogurts also fall into that category.
“Our bodies really like moderation, so we’re really meant to be doing the middle amount of most things,” Jaffe said. “Just having it in typical portions as part of a healthy diet is the goal.”