Probiotic supplements supposedly provide “healthy” bacteria for your GI tract. And they’re probably the one and only “alternative health” treatment fully accepted and promoted by mainstream doctors. They’re frequently given to patients with GI problems. And many heathy folks take them as a way to stay regular.
The problem is–as I’ve always said–they just don’t work. In fact, a new study proves they don’t even help prevent antibiotic-related diarrhea, as I’ll explain in a moment.
I find it more than a little curious mainstream medicine consistently ignores evidence on the benefits of using scientifically proven dietary supplements for many medical conditions. Yet it embraces supplements–such as probiotics–for which there is no evidence of benefit.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Your gut does need “healthy” bacteria. In fact, scientists now know the human GI tract contains roughly 100 trillion “healthy” microbes. They help protect you from deadly infections and diseases. Plus, they may help define you as an individual–like tiny colonizers on your bodily “planet.” We call this unique, bacterial blueprint your “microbiome.” And keeping it healthy is critically important to your overall health.
But, as I explained in a recent interview with the Boston Globe, science shows that taking a probiotic supplement isn’t the best choice for supporting your natural microbiome. Instead, I recommend eating foods that naturally contain probiotics. (You can learn more about these foods by searching my newsletter archives on my website. If you’re not yet a newsletter subscriber, now is the perfect time to get started.)
You see, the human microbiome is far more complex than anyone in the scientific world understands. But we are learning more and more about its importance as time goes on. In fact, I just wrapped up a full report for the August issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter on a new microbiome study that illustrates this point.
For this study, German researchers analyzed the microbiomes of the Hazda peoples of Tanzania (formerly German East Africa). This traditional hunter-gatherer population still follows a “stone age” diet. And it has a lifestyle similar to that of our human ancestors.
Interestingly, the researchers discovered the Hazda have a completely different microbiome than what has been observed and considered “normal” in western populations. So, as it turns out, we may not even know what “normal” is when it comes to the human microbiome.
Furthermore, the researchers noticed marked differences between the microbiomes of Hazda men and women. And they noted apparent associations with hormonal and reproductive factors, which we know are important for the risk of some chronic diseases, such as breast cancer.
We haven’t observed such differences in the west…yet.
Although, my early research at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) showed a significant association between GI function and breast cancer in women. But our political bosses told us to discontinue this line of research because such theories had been “discounted,” despite our factual finding.
But let’s get back to the new probiotic supplement study I mentioned earlier…
Probiotic supplements are generally considered to be similar to the “good” bacteria in your microbiome. And a lot of doctors will tell you to take one when you’re on an antibiotic. Indeed, these overused drugs indiscriminately kill both the “bad” bacteria causing the infection as well as the “good” bacteria that perform important functions in the GI tract.
Therefore, taking an antibiotic causes a lot of collateral damage to your microbiome, which can lead to diarrhea. In fact, the problem is so prevalent, it even has a name: “antibiotic-associated diarrhea” (AAD).
AAD is most common among people over age 65 years. So probiotics are commonly recommended to older patients on antibiotics. In theory, it will replenish their supply of “good” bacteria.
But does this theoretical strategy really work?
Researchers put this unproven assumption to the test in a 2013 study published in the British medical journal Lancet.
They recruited nearly 3,000 patients ages 65 or older who were being treated with antibiotics. And they randomly divided the patients into two groups. One group took a probiotic supplement once a day for 21 days. And the other group took a placebo.
Then, the researchers followed both groups to determine whether they would develop AAD caused by the Clostridium difficile bacterium (C difficile diarrhea or CDD).
Over 12 weeks, the probiotics did not effectively prevent AAD or CDD. Nor did they show any other health benefits.
Clearly, this study shows we have a lot to learn about the human microbiome. And simply taking a probiotic supplement won’t prevent diarrhea caused by antibiotics. (If only it were that easy!)
Of course, doctors also give probiotic supplements to treat or prevent diarrhea caused by irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease. But we don’t have substantial evidence for those purposes either. And the FDA has not approved any claims for benefits of probiotics.
So–since, as I long cautioned, probiotic supplements won’t help you, what can you do to support your microbiome and prevent GI problems?
First, avoid taking antibiotics, unless they are clearly necessary to prevent a more serious illness or disability. In the end, it’s always a healthy immune system that must overcome any infection.
Second, keep your immune system active by following a healthy diet and lifestyle with moderate exercise and alcohol consumption.
Third, make sure to supplement daily with B vitamins, vitamins C and D, magnesium, selenium, and zinc. This practice will do more for your immune system than any probiotic product.
Fourth, avoid taking medications that decrease stomach acids. These medications neutralize your body’s normal ability to kill dangerous bacteria before they can set up a GI infection and cause diarrhea. Plus, these medications block your body’s absorption of key vitamins. Especially the B vitamins.
Fifth, stay hydrated. Of course, whenever you suffer from diarrhea, dehydration is a dangerous possibility. So take care to stay well hydrated with water, electrolytes and minerals. Plus, South African red bush (rooibos) stimulates your cells to manufacture their own water in the cellular mitochondria. I recommend Red Joe water-soluble powdered extract. You can add it to any beverage hot or cold.
Watch out for unusual GI symptoms. Pay close attention to abdominal cramps and/or pain, fever, loss of appetite, nausea, and watery diarrhea with mucus. If you begin to experience any of these symptoms, make rapid adjustments to your diet and get medical help if needed.
But when it comes to probiotic supplements, as I’ve always said, save your time and money for the dietary supplements that really do work.
Always on the side of science,
Marc S. Micozzi, M.D., Ph.D.
1. “Lactobacilli and bifidobacteria in the prevention of antibiotic-associated diarrhoea and Clostridium difficile diarrhoea in older inpatients (PLACIDE): a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicentre trial,” Lancet 2013