Probiotics might seem like a health craze — from kefir to kimchi and kombucha, it’s hard not to notice probiotic-packed foods at the grocery store, as well as the variety of probiotic supplements that have hit the shelves.
Their ubiquity may be justified: In scientific studies compiled by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, probiotics were found to support immune capacity, lower inflammation, and ease certain digestive woes, among other potential benefits. “Because probiotics enhance the number and type of beneficial bacteria in your gut, they can have a positive impact on overall health,” says Amy Rothenberg, ND, a licensed naturopathic doctor based in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Probiotics for Chronic Health Conditions
Along with these larger health benefits, many people opt to eat probiotic foods or take probiotic supplements to help with specific conditions. But what does the research say? The short answer is, yes, probiotics may be used effectively to treat certain health conditions, says Dr. Rothenberg. But because there are so many different strains and dosages, specific recommendations are lacking, and the currently available evidence is mixed.
That said, certain probiotic foods and supplements might help. Below are some specific conditions and select studies as examples. For more detailed analysis, see the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website.
Obesity A review published in Preventive Nutrition and Food Science in June 2020 found that there are studies showing probiotic supplementation inhibited fat accumulation, lowered inflammation, and reduced insulin resistance, which led to better weight management.
Heart disease A review published in the journal Nutrients in August 2021 found that there is evidence that heart disease can be linked to gut health imbalance, and that probiotics may help prevent heart disease by rebalancing the gut microbiome and maintaining immunity. A separate study using a rat model from a January 2019 issue of Circulation found that a diverse microbiome helps increase survival after a heart attack, yet further studies are needed in humans.
Diabetes A meta-analysis of studies published in Advances in Nutrition in May 2021 found that probiotics have a beneficial effect on blood sugar in adults with type 2 diabetes. The effect was stronger in participants with poorly controlled diabetes and those not on insulin therapy. The researchers also found evidence to suggest that probiotics may have a beneficial effect on blood sugar in adults with prediabetes. More research is needed.
Digestive conditions Although earlier evidence pointed to possible benefits of probiotics for people who have diarrhea, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), these studies were not conclusive. In 2020, the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) released guidelines stating that evidence to support the use of probiotics for digestive health conditions is lacking. The AGA said probiotics don’t show enough evidence to be recommended for C. difficile infection, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis (UC), or IBS. But certain probiotics can be considered to prevent C. difficile infection in people who take antibiotics, and for managing pouchitis, a complication of UC surgery.
Autoimmune conditions A study published in the Indian Journal of Rheumatology in March 2021 looked at the effect of probiotics on people who had autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and ankylosing spondylitis. The researchers concluded that the evidence on the effect of probiotic therapy in autoimmune diseases is still inconclusive, and future studies with different probiotic combinations or a longer duration might provide an answer about the effectiveness of probiotics for these conditions.
Allergies and asthma A study published in January 2023 in the journal Allergy, Asthma & Clinical Immunology found that people with asthma who took a probiotic daily for eight weeks scored better on lung function tests than those who didn’t take a probiotic, and concluded that probiotics can be used in addition to common asthma treatments. A review published in the journal Foods in April 2021 stated that probiotics may be beneficial in the treatment of allergies, along with other treatments, although more studies are needed.
Common cold A study in the January 2021 Journal of Nutrition found that participants who took the probiotic supplement had fewer recurrent infections and, thus, fewer colds overall than those taking a placebo. They specifically took Lactiplantibacillus plantarum HEAL9 and Lacticaseibacillus paracasei 8700:2.
Anxiety and depression “There is a growing observation of the gut-brain connection,” says Rothenberg. “From that, we can begin to understand the impact of the microbiome on mental health.” A study in the journal Neuropsychobiology in August 2021 found that the strains L. reuteri PBS072 and B. breve BB077 are potential probiotic candidates for improving stress resilience, cognitive function, and sleep quality.
Cancer A review published in January 2022 in the journal Life (Basel) concluded that probiotics have various effects on cancer cells and the immune system — depending on the strain, dosage, and duration of use. Probiotics are sometimes used as a complementary therapy for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Larger studies are needed before specific recommendations can be given. If you’re undergoing cancer treatment, be sure to talk to a healthcare provider before taking probiotics.
It should be noted that probiotics are not a replacement for conventional medicine to treat any of these conditions, but rather a complementary step to take in addition to your prescribed treatment.
If you want to try a probiotic supplement to treat a chronic health condition, check first with your doctor or a dietitian, and consult a source such as the Alliance for Education on Probiotics (AEProbio) to research your options. While there are many probiotics on the market, you’re most likely to see a positive difference if you take one that’s been studied for the specific condition you have.
Additional reporting by Erica Patino
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