Each year, a new health trend pops up that is seemingly everywhere: on the cover of national fashion magazines, in the aisles of high-end supermarkets and sprinkled in the conversations overheard in gym changing rooms. While use of probiotics isn’t exactly a new concept, it has definitely become one of this year’s hot topics.
Probiotics are live microorganisms — often called “good” or “friendly” germs — that are added to products with the promise of beneficial effects. They are usually found in foods such as yogurt and kefir, or come in a pill form or topical cream. Proponents claim that probiotics help improve digestion, treat allergies, prevent tooth decay, fight the common cold, cure a urinary tract infection and even soothe a colicky infant.
“Probiotics are used for a variety of different conditions,” says Dr. Tommy Yen, a gastroenterologist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “However, it’s important to remember that most of them have not been studied like prescription drugs, and are treated as food additives rather than medications by the FDA.”
Our bodies naturally produce microorganisms, and those in probiotic products are often the same or similar to those we have living inside us. Research has shown that probiotics can be helpful in boosting the immune system, treating diarrhea, and improving the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease. They are generally considered safe for people who are in good health.
What is not known, however, is which probiotics are truly effective, what dosage should be taken, if they can be taken long-term and whether they are safe for everyone. Of further concern is that the FDA has not approved probiotics for treating health problems, and there have been lapses in quality control in some of the products.
“Some companies have performed voluntary studies to validate their dose and use,” says Dr. Yen. “The products can work for some patients with gastrointestinal conditions. However, we worry about risks and side effects. And we currently don’t have the research to prove they all work as advertised.”
Dr. Yen recommends that you work with your doctor to see if a particular probiotic might be beneficial in treating a specific condition. Those who are immunosuppressed — organ transplant patients, those undergoing chemotherapy or the critically ill — and people who have significant medical conditions should avoid probiotic use unless closely monitored by a doctor. Pregnant and nursing mothers should also talk with their health care provider if considering a probiotic supplement.