By George Paraskevakos
It’s not easy being one of the most popular dietary supplements. Whenever you are the most popular, you always attract a fair share of cynics. Probiotics have taken center stage within the past decade largely due to positive anecdotal reports on how they make people feel. But one question continues to surface, “Do they actually work?” The topic of effectiveness and safety is often one we are frequently confronted with at the International Probiotics Association (IPA), especially as more and more people seek answers through science to validate the effects they feel. While there is much more science in the works to build on our ever-increasing understanding of these good bacteria, current trends point to probiotics being the superhero supplement for the future of our health.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host. Experts from the Food and Agriculture Organization in the United Nations and World Health Organizations created this definition of probiotics with the help of more than 8,000 research articles indexed by PubMed. Even with this simple scientific definition and thousands of research documents confirming the safety and efficacy of probiotics, understanding, and effectively using probiotics can still be a hurdle for most consumers. Here are some of the most commonly asked probiotics questions we hear and frequently answer that can help you gain a deeper understanding of probiotics in general and how specific good bacteria can benefit your overall health and wellbeing:
What Is the Science Behind Probiotics?
In a recent global analysis, IPA showed that more than 1,600 human clinical trials studying probiotics have been registered in ClinicalTrials.gov and the International Clinical Trials Registry Platform on WHO databases. These are the two most well-known databases however, there is so much more to be discovered about the power of probiotics that we have not yet analyzed.
The benefits that have been researched most heavily, and longest historically, are the use of probiotics for gut health or digestive support and immune support. These two topics resonate with consumers and healthcare professionals. They are also the most up-and-coming areas of research with scientific studies that relate probiotic benefits in regards to the brain-gut connection, cholesterol support, heart health, allergy and skin applications, as well as oral health; and still many more areas of research are being explored.
When Should You Take A Probiotic?
Your immune system’s status isn’t something that builds and supports itself overnight, it is a result of what you eat, how you sleep, what you do daily and how you handle stress: essentially, your typical day-to-day activities. Being more consistent with probiotic supplementation is key, especially during our new lockdown lifestyle and “germophobic” mentality, as we may not be getting enough exposure to good bacteria normally encountered naturally – less handshaking and more hand washing, while required for our safety, can have another ill effect.
Probiotics are one of the safest dietary supplements available today. There are very few known adverse events reported from taking probiotics. There are systematic reviews and published scientific articles citing how probiotics are well tolerated, so if you do take higher doses of probiotics or introduce new “bugs” into your gut, most complaints are no more than mild cases of bloating and gas. Be patient because these symptoms should subside within the next few days, so do not let a little gas scare you off from taking a daily probiotic; your body is just adjusting (in a good way).
Can I Just Get Probiotics from Food?
While certain foods and beverages like yogurt, kimchi, pickles, kefir or kombucha have beneficial microbes, and can assist in diversifying your microbiome, look at the label carefully to confirm that it does indeed contain or has been fortified with specific probiotic bacteria. Supplementing with probiotics are the most precise way to ensure you are getting the type and amount of good bacteria that you need. Probiotic bacteria are live microbes, specifically targeted, FDA-regulated, meticulously identified, and backed by science. Not every fermented food contains probiotics, even if they contain beneficial microbes.
Our digestive tract is as unique to us as our fingerprint or DNA. We all have our own microbial ecosystem that is specific to us and began taking shape from the moment we entered this world. Whether a natural childbirth or C-section delivery, our gut is immediately influenced by these birthing modes and ultimately introduces different bacteria into our bodies in different ways. Over the course of our lifetime, our gut microbiota is shaped by what we expose it to including our diet, medications, environment, and other lifestyle variables.
After the age of 40, we tend to lose specific kinds of bacteria in our gut microbiome like Bifidobacteria, which is a type of bacteria linked to preventing adverse health conditions and diseases related to the immune and digestive systems. Probiotic formulations targeted to specific age groups and gender are coming at an important time, especially given the “microbephobia” we have developed during the pandemic.
Are Probiotic Supplements Regulated?
Yes, probiotics are regulated! This is the biggest misconception most people have about dietary supplements. The FDA has direct supervision over the probiotic industry and regulates all dietary supplements under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). This regulation involves many levels of FDA involvement, including document reviews, audits and more. The FDA is additionally responsible for taking action against any adulterated or misbranded dietary supplement product after it reaches the market.
IPA’s mission is to promote the safe and efficacious use of probiotics throughout the world. This includes supporting IPA members who are probiotic companies in good standing with science-based products that adhere to FDA’s safety and marketing guidelines.
By clearing up confusion surrounding probiotics and their efficacy and safety, hopefully you too will be excited to incorporate probiotics into your daily routine. With social distancing and mask wearing measures limiting our interaction with others and their microbes, both good and bad, taking a probiotic supplement daily could help your immune and digestive health stay on track and keep you in good health during the pandemic.
George Paraskevakos, MBA, is executive director of the International Probiotics Association (IPA) whose mission it is to promote the safe and efficacious use of probiotics throughout the world while being “The Global Voice of Probiotics.” As a probiotics expert and scientific strategist he has developed international outreach programs for regulators and education platforms for healthcare providers and consumers. Since his designation as executive director, Paraskevakos has grown the association from 40 to 110 companies worldwide; hosted numerous international probiotics conferences; published extensive probiotic papers and articles; and collaborated with fellow probiotics associations to further knowledge on probiotics effectiveness and safety. Paraskevakos is also an advisory council member for the Center for Digestive Health at Rutgers University, Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine & Health Sciences and Alliance for the Education of Probiotics (AEP).
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