If you’ve watched just about any amount of television lately, read a magazine or a newspaper, or been on the Internet, you’ve no doubt seen advertising for the many different types of probiotics products that are out there. But what, exactly, does science have to say about some of the health benefits touted by probiotics ads? Here’s a look at the reality behind the hype.
Many types of probiotics are designed to help promote a healthy “gut,” or gastrointestinal tract. They do so by helping to reinforce the number of beneficial bacteria and other microbes in this area of the body. These “good” microbes are locked in a constant struggle with harmful microbes. If the harmful ones outnumber the good, that’s when we’re at the highest risk of having to deal with diarrhea and other digestive issues.
Antibiotics can deplete the number of good bacteria in the gut, with a condition known as antibiotic-associated diarrhea (AAD) often being the result. The Lactobacillus group of bacteria found in many types of probiotics supplements have been show to help relieve many of the symptoms associated with AAD.1
Probiotics have been associated with other digestive benefits as well. In one study, people suffering from bloating and constipation received two servings of yogurt with probiotic bacteria daily for several weeks. At the end of the study, the participants reported they not only had increased bowel movements, but also a reduction in bloating.2
The vagina is another part of the body where good and bad bacteria fight for control. When some women take antibiotics or birth control pills, they often develop yeast and urinary tract infections. Research suggests that the Lactobacillus group of bacteria may help in this situation.3
The health of your mouth can have a significant impact on your general health. Low birth weight and diabetes are just two health problems that have been associated to poor oral hygiene. The Lactobacillus reuteri bacterium has been shown to help strengthen oral health by reducing tooth decay.4
Research shows that probiotic use could help reduce the risk of catching a cold.5 In one study, children were divided into two groups, with one receiving milk enriched with probiotics and the other receiving regular milk. According to the results, the children who drank the regular milk were 17 percent more likely to suffer an upper respiratory infection than the group given probiotics-enriched milk.6
Probiotics may even help make the skin healthier. For example, research indicates that beneficial microbes can play a role in preventing the development of eczema, which results in dry, itchy skin. One study involving pregnant women showed that those who took probiotics potentially had less of a chance at giving birth to children with eczema than those who didn’t.
The participants in the study were all expectant mothers who suffered from eczema. One group took probiotic supplements during the last two months of their pregnancy and the first two months of breastfeeding. The other group received a placebo during this time. Researchers checked the children of the participants at six-, 12- and 24-week intervals after they were born. Far more babies born to women taking the placebo developed eczema than those born to women who received probiotics.7
Probiotics may also play a role in helping reduce the symptoms of colic in babies. While scientists aren’t sure what causes colic, research suggests that probiotics could help relieve the discomfort of babies with the condition. In one study, researchers found that babies breastfed by mothers who received probiotics cried an average of three fewer hours a day than babies born to women who didn’t take them.8
Are Different Types of Probiotics Safe?
While it’s generally believed that all types of probiotics are generally safe, they can sometimes lead to minor side effects, such as slight bloating and gas. However, people who suffer from severe health problems that affect the intestines should speak to their doctor first before taking any sort of supplement. Likewise, people with compromised immune systems should also get medical clearance before taking probiotics.
But even if you’re generally in good health, it won’t hurt to have a talk with your doctor before taking any types of probiotics, to rule out any risk of allergies or any other potential health issues.