Probiotics have become popular in recent years. The idea of ingesting ‘friendly’ bacteria which are good for you gut, your digestion and your general health is not a new one – it has been around since early last century – but they have now taken off in a big way.  Benefits which have been claimed for probiotics in addition to digestive support include help for the immune system, recovery from diarrhea (particularly following a course of antibiotics), acne and eczema.  Conditions for which probiotics can be used but where research is still ongoing include the common cold, oral health problems, infant colic and hay fever.

To get the benefits of probiotics it is not completely necessary to use probiotic supplements, as other food sources like miso, sauerkraut and yoghurt contain them.  For some skin complaints, probiotic skin creams are also now available, and there is some good evidence now that these can be effective (see below).

So why would you want to add probiotics to your diet, as food or as supplements? The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, part of the US National Institute of Health, puts it this way:

” Although people often think of bacteria and other microorganisms as harmful ‘germs’, many microorganisms help our bodies function properly. For example, bacteria that are normally present in our intestines help digest food, destroy disease-causing microorganisms, and produce vitamins.” (1)

That site goes on to describe the different types of microorganisms which can be found in different formulations of probiotics, usually Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.  If you are considering a probiotic product, realise that they are not all the same and look for formulations effective for your condition.

So, are Probiotics effective and can they help an already reasonably health person? This is the question we should be asking, and the How Stuff Works – Health site has addressed this in a two page assessment, and found that though research is ongoing, no one actually no one is sure.

” So do probiotics really do anything? Right now, the answer seems to be a big, fat maybe. But with consumers interested in natural health and manufacturers eager to cash in on the functional food fad, we can hope for more studies that will shed a light on the subject.”  (2)

One area where seems to be good evidence of effectiveness is for vaginal disorders.  The Mayo clinic, on its web site, grades evidence from peer-reviewed studies on probiotics like acidophilus and says that

“There is good evidence supporting the use of L. acidophilus or yogurt enriched with L. acidophilus for the treatment of vaginal infections…. Several studies have used L. acidophilus in combination with other probiotics or supplements, such as vitamin B.”  (3)

Another area where probiotics seem to have good evidence of having value is in the area of skin complaints such as acne and rosacea. A 2014 report by dermatologists looking at topically applied probiotics found that probiotics applied to the skin could protect it and stop bacteria and parasites provoking the immune reaction which causes the skin complaint.

In addition, probiotics taken internally can help:

“…oral probiotics – sold as daily supplements containing Lactobacilli and/or Bifidobacterium or in yogurts containing live cultures – could influence skin conditions such as acne and rosacea … stress alone or in combination with processed comfort foods that lack fiber can slow digestion. This in turn changes the type and number of bacteria that live in the gut to unhealthy bacteria. Eventually the gut lining becomes leaky and toxins are released into the bloodstream causing inflammation throughout the body. People who are predisposed to acne or rosacea can experience flares as a result of this shift in gut bacteria and subsequent inflammation…. patients [need] to find ways to help manage or cope with stress, fix their diet or introduce healthy bacteria to the gut in the form of probiotics. The probiotics will line the gut and create a healthy, sealed barrier that prevents inflammation that can trigger acne or rosacea.”  (4)

So, those with skin complaints should definitely try probiotics.

Sources and further reading:

  1. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health –

2. How Stuff Works – Probiotics

3. Mayo Clinic – Acidophilus

4. American Academy of Dermatology