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Taking probiotic supplements could be a waste of your money. Our nutritionist explains.

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
October 08, 2018

National health surveys in 2012 revealed that more than 4 million adults and 300,000 kids take probiotic supplements on a regular basis—and those numbers that have most likely increased. Some people find that taking them helps to manage gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome.

Others take these supplements to boost immune functioning, to repopulate good bacteria after antibiotics, or to potentially prevent disease or to improve overall health. But two new studies published in the journal Cell in September call probiotics in the form of supplements into question when it comes to their effectiveness and value.  

So are probiotics helpful, harmful, or useless? It’s not clear cut, but here’s what the studies suggest and what that means for health-conscious shoppers.

Can Probiotics Improve Gut Bacteria?  

This first study looked at the effect probiotic supplements had on improving gut health by giving participants a multi-strain probiotic for several weeks. The supplement was made up of 11 different bacteria strains commonly found in current probiotic products on the market.

The research compared endoscopy and colonoscopy results of participants, both before and after taking the supplements, to evaluate overall gut bacteria count and diversity. The study's results suggested that taking a probiotic supplement had a pretty clear-cut effect one of two ways depending on the individual:

  • Either positive microbiome changes from bacteria strains in the probiotic were observed, OR;
  • No effect at all was observed, with the strains appearing to simply pass through the body.

So the first study suggests bacteria strains in probiotics supplements need to be highly individualized to reap potential benefits.  

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Can Probiotics Repopulate Good Bacteria After Taking Antibiotics?

Probiotics foods like yogurt are routinely recommended to help repopulate gut bacteria after taking an antibiotic, so this second study looked at the effectiveness of using a probiotic supplement to do this.

All study participants completed a round of antibiotics. Then some individuals were given a probiotic supplement to take daily, while some took nothing, essentially allowing the gut to recover on its own.  Results suggested that taking the probiotic supplement increased good bacteria numbers in the gut, but this actually slowed the microbiome from returning to pre-antibiotic conditions. The reason?

Even though the supplement increased good bacteria, these weren’t necessarily strains that each individual needed. The effect was that it took those individual’s microbiomes several months to return to normal and longer than those who took nothing.

The second study suggests taking probiotic supplements to restore good bacteria following antibiotics may actually slow repair of the gut microbiome.

What Does This Mean for You?

These findings have left many people questioning probiotic products. It also brings to light that while there is a lot of promising research, the reality is that there are more unknowns about probiotics than scientific evidence. Strains found naturally in foods still appear to be the most effective way to improve gut health, but here’s what to know if you do opt for a supplement.  

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1) Probiotics aren’t an automatic ticket to health.  Foods, stress, alcohol, the environment, medications, and underlying conditions all have effects on the gut microbiome. Consuming a few bacteria strains in a capsule or gummy each day can’t negate effects that those may be having on gut health. While there may provide some value when it comes to condition management or improving health, don’t place all health hopes—or even most—on a supplement.

2.) There’s no easy way to assess gut health. Participants in both studies underwent endoscopies and colonoscopies for researchers to fully assess gut health and bacteria make-up, invasive procedures that many of us don’t have access or a desire to do unless medically needed. While there are at-home test kits that claim to assess gut health, you may want to think twice before buying. Most attempt to analyze gut health and to make recommendation by examining a poop sample you mail to them – something I’m only sharing because these recent studies suggest that analyzing bacteria in that type of sample does not provide an accurate picture of gut health or bacteria make-up.

3.) A personalized approach is key. It’s clear that each person’s gut microbiome is distinct in its existing gut bacteria, genetic make-up, health needs, and receptiveness to different strains. This means that a “one-size-fits-all” approach isn’t effective for most when it comes to probiotic supplements. Ideally, bacteria strains in a probiotic supplement would be designed specific to an individual needs, but, as mentioned above, this isn’t easy to determine.  

4.) Be selective. Even if you don’t know your exact gut needs, be selective by picking a strain that has some research to back safety and health potential using a online tool like this one. Specific strains appear to be more effective for different symptom and conditions. And as always, consult with your doctor if you have any underlying conditions or concerns that a probiotic supplement isn’t a good option for you.