There’s a lot of buzz around probiotics. They’re endorsed by celebrities and fill grocery stores aisles.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that promote a healthy gut. Scientists believe they could unlock a deeper understanding of our health. Probiotics are found in some foods and drinks, like yogurt or fermented tea.
Just like vitamins, probiotics are available as supplements. Manufacturers make steep claims about their benefits. They include digestive health, strengthened immune system, weight loss and reduced cancer risk. But can a supplement really do all that?
To learn more about probiotic supplements, we spoke with Carrie Daniel- MacDougall, Ph.D., M.P.H., a nutritional epidemiologist at MD Anderson who studies diet and the microbiome.
Here’s what you should know about probiotic supplements.
It’s always better to get nutrients from food. That includes probiotics.
“More research needs to be done on probiotics in general and probiotic supplements, but it’s always better to get your nutrients from food rather than supplements,” Daniel-MacDougall says. “They just don’t deliver the same benefits as food.”
One reason is because supplements aren’t regulated as closely as medications. So the quality and ingredients can vary greatly from product to product.
Unless your doctor is prescribing probiotics for a specific purpose, stick to getting them from foods like yogurt that may have other nutrients, like calcium.
Eat probiotic foods along with prebiotic foods. Prebiotics are the food that bacteria eats and what sustains good bacteria long-term. Oatmeal, bananas, berries, asparagus and beans are all prebiotics.
Chances are probiotic supplements won’t help you. There is also a chance they could hurt you.
Everyone’s microbiome – the collection of bacteria in their body – is different and exists in a delicate balance. So a probiotic supplement that helps one person might not help someone else.
“Maybe a probiotic supplement will have a positive effect on your digestive system if you’re lucky, but it’s likely it will have no effect,” Daniel-MacDougall says. “And it could even disrupt or displace some of the good bacteria you already have.”
This could result in an upset stomach or problems with digestion to feeling bloated as your microbiome is remodeling for better or forworse.
“I think the future of probiotics in medicine will be more personalized,” Daniel-MacDougall says.
There’s no quick fix.
“I think supplements are popular because we want a quick fix,” Daniel-MacDougall says. “We’re hoping that a pill can fix everything. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.”
Focus on eating healthy and getting exercise to feel your best. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week to help lower your cancer risk.
Talk to your doctor before taking any supplement or making any major dietary changes.
In some cases, probiotics from food or supplements may help individuals with irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease or other health problems. But there is also potential for harm if used improperly or in combination with other medications. Your doctor can help you find the one that's right for you.