Do You Really Need That Probiotic Yogurt?

Exactly how delicate is your gut bacteria, anyway?

by Kastalia Medrano
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Our bodies come with built-in detox systems (your liver and kidneys aren’t just, like, decorative), but the massive interest in probiotic products for gut health wouldn’t make you think it. Let’s remember our gut bacteria has pretty much been sorting itself out since forever.

And yet, people have become increasingly anti-gut, blaming gut bacteria and the supposed imbalances therein for a whole host of problems, from fatigue and migraines to diabetes. Has our modern diet, perhaps, really compromised our gut health to the degree that it needs an entire industry churning out products that cater to our guts’ supposed sensitivities?

We know, for instance, that the distribution of gut bacteria in your GI tract will vary depending on what part of the world you live in and thus what kind of traditional diet you follow. We also know that there are interactions happening within the gut microbiome — meaning any of the various organisms living in our intestinal tract. One of the big areas of research there revolves around the immune system — the lining of our GI tracts has a lot of surface area, which means lots of cells being continually exposed to their surrounding environments.

This relates to the Hygiene Hypothesis, which essentially holds that because Western society’s modern, developed environment is so over-sanitized, we’re not being exposed during infancy to the same variety of organisms we were 100 or even just 50 years ago.

Our overly clean environment might provide an explanation for gut-based conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s Disease, or ulcerative colitis. In that sense, certain individuals need to be more mindful of which products they consume with respect to their gut health, sure. But does the average person who follows a Western diet and is free of chronic gastrointestinal issues need to be literally buying into the probiotic yogurt craze — a craze which, it should be said, is very, very profitable for the industry that supplies it — to keep their gut shipshape?

“There’s a lot of commercial interest,” said Dr. Kevin Ruff, a Gastroenterology Fellow at the Mayo Clinic. “And sometimes that drives things more than the scientific evidence. We definitely know there’s a link [between] the gut and health overall, but we’re still in the early stages of the research. There aren’t a lot of connections we can say are definitely going on.”

There are also various over-the-counter probiotic supplements that come in pill form, a few of which have been studied and subsequently recommended by doctors. The strain bifidobacterium (you might recognize it under the brand name Align) was shown to help relieve the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, like bloating and abdominal pain. The probiotic Saccharomyces boulardii (brand name Florastor, among others), demonstrated benefits for a variety of gut diseases and deficiencies, including infectious diarrhea.

Your body is likely doing just fine on its own, despite all the artificial colorants or free radicals or whatever it is that makes you fear for your gut health in this day and age. Ruff says there’s no real evidence that such products are harmful, so if you enjoy them and believe they make you feel better, by all means, carry on. After all, they do taste good.

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