The Pros and Cons of the Probiotics Trend

The Pros and Cons of the Probiotics Trend

The Pros and Cons of the Probiotics Trend

Probiotics are here, and they're spreading across the country. But they've always been here. The only question is whether we should follow the hype and go out of your way to get more of them.

     
The Pros and Cons of the Probiotics Trend
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Often it's hard to know how trends start. Take probiotics. While humans not only already have them in our guts but have been unknowingly consuming probiotic foods (such as pickles, dark chocolate, sauerkraut, miso soup, and some yogurt) and beverages (kombucha, kefir, goat's and sheep's milk) for thousands of years, don't feel dumb if you're late to the party. It's only within the last few years that the term probiotic—a catchall thought to have been coined in the 1950s to refer to any live bacteria or yeast that is considered healthful—has gotten much play in society at large.

But it's getting harder to miss it. If you buy yogurt, you've seen the word probiotic and "Greek yogurt" (which is always probiotic) a lot more over the last 10 years—which probably accounts at least partly for the ascent of yogurt at big business (which in 2013 Forbes labeled "the Yogurt Wars"). Yakult, a Japanese manufacturer of probiotic drinks with its own proprietary strain of probiotic bacterium, opened its first Unites States manufacturing plant in 2014 and has enjoyed increasing penetration into the U.S. market since then. Likewise, the entire kombucha industry is flowering. Introduced as a product in the U.S. only 15 years ago, according to the Associated Press kombucha sales nearly quintupled between from 2013 to 2015 and are predicted to rise by 25% every year between now and 2020. And with Pepsi Co.'s November 2016 acquisition of probiotic beverage brand KeVita, you can bet the promotion of probiotics won't be diminishing anytime soon.

But is the hoopla more than hoopla? The good news is that, if you're in good health, there is little evidence to suggest that probiotics will cause any sort of problem in healthy individuals. In relatively rare cases, side effects can be gas and/or mild digestive discomfort.

Of course, if you're seeking out a product specifically for its probiotic content, you want some or all of the touted benefits, which include everything from ameliorating liver disease and the common cold to minimizing tooth decay and periodontal disease to ridding you of digestive disorders great and small.

The bottom line from the scientific community at large is that evidence supporting most of these claims is lacking—more because very few studies have been done, rather than there being much evidence contradicting any particular claim. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, has yet to take any position on such claims. As the National Institute for Health notes, "Some experts have cautioned that the rapid growth in marketing and use of probiotics may have outpaced scientific research for many of their proposed uses and benefits."

But according to the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the Mayo Clinic, there is encouraging evidence concerning certain benefits, particularly in terms of digestive health. And these are far from the only major medical figures to take this stance. "Since the mid-1990s, clinical studies suggest that probiotic therapy can help treat several gastrointestinal ills, delay the development of allergies in children, and treat and prevent vaginal and urinary infections in women," says Harvard Medical School. Dr. Andrew Weil, maybe the most famous and respected of American physicians promoting "alternative" medicines, goes further in his praise of probiotics, calling them "an effective treatment for diarrhea, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, yeast infections, oral thrush, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis."

There are some who feel the benefits of probiotics rise all the way to the head. In 2015, Prevention magazine profiled a group of psychiatrists who believe probiotics can be effective in treating some anxiety and depression disorders by a) increasing the amount of bacteria which are building blocks in the production of neurochemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, which b) has a mitigating effect on the secretion of stress hormones (e.g., cortisol); and c) helping to regulate the immune system's inflammatory response (which helps with depression, since inflammation is widely regarded to be an underlying cause). 

It's important to note that not all probiotics are alike. "For example," says the NIH, "if a specific kind of Lactobacillus helps prevent an illness, that doesn’t necessarily mean that another kind of Lactobacillus would have the same effect or that any of the Bifidobacterium probiotics would do the same thing." And since all individuals aren't alike, the NIH warns that "there have been reports linking probiotics to severe side effects, such as dangerous infections" in people with certain serious medical conditions, such as "critically ill patients, those who have had surgery, very sick infants, and people with weakened immune systems."

So the bottom line—at present—seems to be that for most people giving probiotics a try can't hurt; and they certainly may do you some good. But like with anything new you're putting into your body, trying a little at first to gauge the effects, plus keeping in mind exactly what it is when you're looking for or getting a particular effect.

image credit: GoodBelly


About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

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Last Updated : Monday, August 14, 2017