True story: I used to take 22 pills a day, every day. You might think I was suffering from a severe illness but, in fact, I was suffering from the exact opposite — a fastidious dedication to my health. I took fistfuls of supplements every day, hoping to ward off cancer, strengthen my bones, grow longer hair (on my head), lose hair (on my face), build muscle, burn fat, boost my immune system and pretty much any other thing you could think of.
I’ve always been a sucker for the one-two punch of a heart-felt testimonial and a label full of scientific claims and “evidence.” (Upside: At least I know I’m a sucker?) And one of the supplements that most called out to me was a probiotic. After all, having healthy gut bacteria is linked to everything from less depression and anxiety to resistance to illness to weight loss. I made sure I bought a top-of-the-line pill, kept it in my fridge and took it faithfully every day.
Until I didn’t.
One day I looked at my entire shelf of pill bottles, complete with a weekly pill container that would astonish even the sickest octogenarian, and wondered what on earth I was doing. I was, by all accounts, incredibly healthy. Did I really need all this stuff? So I quit. All of it. Yes, even the multivitamin.
This little experiment helped me to quickly see which supplements I’d been taking because they were helping me and which I’d been taking out of fear. And the vast majority fit into the latter category, including, I was sad to note, my favorite probiotic. When I stopped taking it, nothing changed with my mood, my immune system or even my poop.
But! One day I got an ear infection (yes, as an adult, don’t laugh, it hurt like mad) and was prescribed antibiotics. As I took them, I noticed immediate bowel issues. My doctor recommended I take a probiotic to repopulate my antibiotic-decimated gut with good bacteria. And it worked like magic! In fact, it worked so well that now I keep a bottle on hand for whenever I or my children get tummy troubles.
My little experiment wouldn’t surprise the authors of a recent study, published in Genome Medicine, that found that for healthy people probiotics don’t do much. The researchers looked at the results of seven studies done using pills, food products, drinks and sachets claiming to provide probiotic benefits. The results?
“No convincing evidence exists for consistent effects of examined probiotics on fecal microbiota composition in healthy adults, despite probiotic products being consumed to a large extent by the general population,” they wrote. However, they do acknowledge that the research showed probiotics may provide some benefit for people who are sick, as I was with the ear infection.
While the meta-analysis isn’t definitive — the sample sizes of the included studies were relatively small and the time frames short — it does give some food for thought, especially in regards to the mega-marketing machine pushing supplements on healthy people.
When it comes to supplements, the old adage might be right after all: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!