Yes, they may help. Lebwohl says there are reputable studies that show a link between the use of probiotics and the reduction in IBS symptoms, citing this meta-analysis. It's estimated that 11 percent of the world population complains of symptoms like abdominal cramps, diarrhea, constipation, excessive gas and/or mucus in their stools. While for some the condition can be attributed to certain dietary triggers, others appear to be stress-related, which brings us to the heart of where many claims about the effectiveness of probiotics lie—in the gut-brain axis.
They can break down substances in foods that keep you from absorbing the micronutrients inside. They not only protect against the consequences of rogue molecules passing through a leaky gut, but they assist your intestinal cells in staying healthy to optimize nutrient absorption. In addition, some of the metabolic by-products of probiotics, such as short-chain fatty acids and vitamin production, are very nourishing to your GI tract.
However, these quality of life improvements are varied, and some improvements are quite mild. Sample group, types of allergies, symptoms, and results are across a broad spectrum. For example, numerous studies have shown that allergic rhinitis responses to the household dust mite decrease significantly in adults and children when probiotics were used. However, people allergic to birch pollen saw neither a decrease in general allergic responses to birch pollen or to apple food.
Although some probiotics have shown promise in research studies, strong scientific evidence to support specific uses of probiotics for most health conditions is lacking. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any probiotics for preventing or treating any health problem. 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.
It is well known that people with lactose intolerance can often consume yogurt with few symptoms. This is because the probiotics in yogurt help digest the lactose in the small intestine, before it reaches the colon. In addition, the yogurt starter cultures L. bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus help to break down the lactose. Because of its probiotics, yogurt is a good way for people with lactose intolerance to consume the recommended servings of dairy without experiencing uncomfortable symptoms they may get from other dairy products.
When I polled friends and family about their personal experiences with probiotics, I got a real mixed bag of responses. Some called them a lifesaver and others felt no effects whatsoever. I put the anecdotes aside and talked to Ben Lebwohl, gastroenterologist and director of clinical research at Columbia University’s Celiac Disease Center, to get the straight poop on whether probiotics are miracle or myth.
While Lebwohl isn't comfortable endorsing a specific brand publicly, he did say "a widely used brand in which the compound is bifidobacteria or lactobaccilus seems like a reasonable way to go in a patient who is eager to give this a try, but would be best done under the supervision of a healthcare professional.” He does advise looking for a supplement with between 1 billion and 10 billion colony-forming units, or CFUs.
The beneficial microbes, including probiotics, live with other microbes that are either benign, pathogenic (disease-causing), or opportunistic, meaning that they normally play nicely but can get out of control if given the opportunity. Actually, any microbe can cause you problems if it ends up in a place other than where it is supposed to be. Such a scenario can happen with intestinal permeability, commonly called leaky gut. Leaky gut happens when the layer of skin-like cells in your GI tract develops gaps in between the cells, allowing food particles, toxins, microbes, and other hazards to enter your bloodstream, if not stopped by the immune system. Since mucus, the thin layer of cells, and your immune system are your only defenses against the outside world within your digestive tract, it is very beneficial to you to have helpful microbes protecting you from potentially pathogenic microbes. These beneficial microbes can produce acids or antimicrobial products called bacteriocins, which hinder or kill pathogens. They can also stand in solidarity to prevent pathogens from taking up residence, or displace them if they do.
"There is an increasing interest in probiotic interventions," wrote the authors of one of the most recent studies, a meta-analysis of previous research in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Those researchers found that probiotics were particularly useful against a common gastrointestinal problem: antibiotic-associated diarrhea (AAD).
Eating more foods that are naturally rich in probiotics, like yogurt, kimchi and kefir, can help restore balance in your gut and create more “good” bacteria to fight off inflammation from “bad” bacteria. But what about food products that have probiotics infused into them? Indeed, manufacturers are banking on a new crop of gut-friendly products. From chocolates and granola bars to juices and tonics, nut butters, bottled water and even air sprays, you can’t escape the probiotic movement.
What exactly do probiotics do? They are believed to protect us in two ways. The first is the role that they play in our digestive tract. We know that our digestive tract needs a healthy balance between the good and bad bacteria, so what gets in the way of this? It looks like our lifestyle is both the problem and the solution. Poor food choices, emotional stress, lack of sleep, antibiotic overuse, other drugs, and environmental influences can all shift the balance in favor of the bad bacteria.