Probiotics: “Not a Cure-All”
Probiotics are considered “good bacteria.” They are available in supplements and foods as a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Many ongoing studies are examining the usefulness of probiotics to determine if, in fact, there is any reason to consume them to treat certain ailments.
Believing they are making sound health choices Americans spend billions of dollars on CAM, when instead, they are often taking supplements without any proven value and may actually be harmful.
One day, we may all take probiotics for health, but at this time no evidence-based information from reputable studies show benefit to all consumers. Some milk products contain acidophilus, a “good bacteria” used in the production of yogurt. Dating back to 1907, studies by a Russian physiologist suggested some bacteria could be beneficial and prolong life. But on the Internet and in TV ads today, there are many unfounded recommendations being made. If you Google “Probiotics” – in .27 seconds, you will receive over 13 million results to read and try to sort through.
What should we believe?
A study performed at Baylor College of Medicine and MD Anderson Cancer Center has recently shown a particular bacterial strain, Lactobacillus reuteri, appears to decrease the growth of a form of human leukemia cancer cells. Another study at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Ohio State University examined Lactobacillus acidophilus, the bacterium used to make yogurt, and found it may improve the immune response, if used in conjunction with an immunization against rotavirus infection. An effective immunization against rotavirus could save the lives of infants and children worldwide who develop severe dehydration from the infectious diarrheal illness. Both groups of researchers made no recommendation for oral intake of probiotics to the general population and both recommended further study.
Spending on probiotic supplements tripled between 1994 and 2003. Purchases have continued to skyrocket, possibly because of the numerous ridiculous television ads that tell you nothing about probiotic action, but state probiotics are necessary for “colon health”. You will find claims such as: “restore your digestive balance” and “relieve irritable bowel syndrome in 4 days” but what, exactly, does that mean?
A number of reputable studies have evaluated the usefulness of probiotic supplements used in conjunction with a proven effective treatment for Clostridium Difficile (CD) colitis. This inflammatory intestinal problem, which can be life-threatening, may evolve after antibiotic treatment for infections and cause profuse watery diarrhea. The antibiotic destroys normal bacteria and allows the overgrowth of CD. The concept is probiotics would replace lost bacteria and balance the bacterial content in the bowel.
Study results showed no benefit from the addition of probiotics to treatment regimens. In some cases, life-threatening complications resulted from the probiotic, including blood infection and liver abscesses. Because of these serious problems, probiotics are not recommended, especially for immune suppressed people.
At this time, the only probiotic recommended in one study was an adjunct treatment for Clostridium Difficile using Saccharomyces boulardii, and only if the CD was a recurrent problem.
Probiotics are not recommended in children.
Beware of unusual ads encouraging you to take supplements of any kind. Research the details and discuss them with your doctor before taking them. Not only can they be a waste of money and not beneficial, but can be harmful. If you take supplements, seek evidence-based information about complementary and alternative therapies.
Americans spend billions of dollars on complementary and alternative medicine supplements. Many of us eat yogurt because it tastes good and is generally good for us, but the use of probiotic supplements daily has no proven benefit. Before you join the crowd and waste your money, evaluate your options by consulting valid sources for more information. Talk to your doctor before making your decision to take probiotics.
www.nccam.nih.gov/health/probiotics (The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine)
Betty Kuffel, MD