Probiotics: Risk or benefit?


The market for promoting probiotics has exploded over the years. In fact, it has grown at such a fast rate that science hasn't been able to keep up. Although there is a gap between what we have been told and what experts are finding out, scientists are making tremendous strides in understanding our gut microbiome and the role of probiotics.

A probiotic is defined as a live organism that can provide health benefits when administered in adequate amounts. In the United States, probiotics are found in foods or supplements that claim to support health, immune system, digestion or enhance skin and beauty. However, the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate these products, so companies don't have to prove that they actually work.

The quality and safety of probiotics cannot be confirmed. Numerous cases of illness and infections related to probiotic consumption have been reported, and there have been findings of contaminants in products. In 2017, the FDA inspected about 650 supplement manufacturing facilities and found that half of them had violations. This included failure to identify the purity and strength of their supplements, meaning that consumers may not be getting what they think they are purchasing.

Many consumers think that taking any probiotic is beneficial. However, most experts claim that choosing a probiotic should be given as much consideration as choosing the right medication for a condition or illness. If you have high cholesterol, you aren't going to take just any medication. You are going to take a medication that is specifically designed to lower cholesterol.

Regardless of the marketing push for probiotics, there is a lack of research confirming that probiotics initiate any type of positive change. In fact, most research states that probiotics just pass through with very little impact. Additionally, there are no studies with concrete evidence to prove that people are less likely to get sick or have intestinal discomfort if they take a probiotic.

In a study of patients who were advised to take probiotics after taking antibiotics, it was found that those who did not take a probiotic recovered their gut microbiome within four weeks. For those who took the probiotic, their microbiomes did not return to normal, even after testing at six months. This study concluded that the consumption of probiotics following antibiotics can delay or prevent the recovery of your gut's normal bacteria.

Taking a generic probiotic may not provide any help, so be sure to discuss your symptoms and needs with your physician. Just as medications differ from one another, so do probiotics. Be sure to get the right strain for the right problem, use it correctly, and store it properly.

Missy Corrigan is executive of community health for Sumter Family YMCA. She can be reached at or (803) 773-1404.