Like many others in the modern world who eat unhealthy and neglect the right diet, I suffer from chronic conditions like acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which frequently leads to abdominal pain due to a bloated stomach and constipation. I rarely get quality sleep and often go in and out of the hospital which affects both mental health and job performance.
But in recent years, I've kept hearing the word probiotic from friends or even my doctor. Supplements like this may be a new alternative that can help improve health, and when I looked into it, I realised that I’m late to the game. Probiotic supplements have gained significant popularity lately and it has become a mega-industry with people selling food that is probiotic-rich. In Thailand, dozens of probiotic brands sell in the market such as Nutrilite, Probac 7, Zenji, Bomi, and Lacto-Fit, just to name a few. There are also celebrities who have made a business selling this type of dietary supplement. For example, well-known TV host Patcharasri Benjamas has his own probiotic supplements brand, Powershot Lion Leana, with claims of improving health and overall well-being.
But do we really know what the term probiotic means? These supplements have sparked curiosity among health-conscious individuals. Probiotics are live microorganisms, basically bacteria and sometimes yeast that give some sort of positive health benefit to the person taking them. Now the job of the gut, which includes the small intestine and large intestine, is to extract energy from foods, absorb certain nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and get rid of the waste. The majority of the probiotics end up at the end of your intestinal system also known as the colon or microbiome. This is the ecosystem that contains good bacteria, fungi, and things actually essential to your survival. Rich foods like whole grains, legumes, yoghurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi naturally contain that good bacteria.
But what about probiotic supplements? Is it really good and safe for our health? And what kind of probiotic suits our bodies?
The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledges the potential benefits of probiotics. According to the WHO: "Probiotics can confer health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts," and they can be useful in supporting digestive health and preventing certain infections. While probiotic supplements are generally considered safe for consumption, it is crucial to be aware of certain considerations. The WHO emphasises the importance of quality control and safety standards in the production and distribution of probiotics. It is recommended to choose supplements from reputable brands that adhere to stringent manufacturing practices and conduct rigorous quality testing.
There are already 7,000 to 9,000 different strains of good bacteria inside your gut. Increasing the number of specific strains can have different impacts depending on which condition you have. Sure, probiotics in general are considered a safe supplement, but there are dangers, especially if you have a weakened immune system such as in certain illnesses like cancer or organ transplants. A recent study that came out of Israel showed that taking probiotics can actually harm your microbiome depending on which probiotic you take.
So when it comes to probiotic supplements, the average healthy person should not be taking daily probiotics. It hasn't been proven to give enough benefit to warrant the risks. Spending money on these expensive supplements may not give you any benefit whatsoever. For those of you considering starting to take a probiotic, like me, first and foremost, it may be a good idea to have a conversation with your doctor or healthcare professional before starting, especially for those with underlying health conditions.
Tatat Bunnag is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.