It seems to be a growing trend. Foods of all different kinds are advertising that they contain probiotics, but what do they really do and are they really necessary? Is it worth the cost? What’s the story behind biotics, anyway? We set out to find the answer.
What Are Biotics?
Biotic means "related to life" and refers to living factors in an environment. There are many types of biotics, and they combine with abiotics, which means "not alive" to create a particular environment or ecosystem.
Inside the human body, biotics refers to bacteria. Many have heard there are good and bad bacteria, though the bad usually get more attention when they make people sick. But good bacteria exist as well and they are often tasked with keeping bad bacteria in check.
When people are stressed out or not taking good care of themselves, bad bacteria can grow like weeds and lead to infections. But when the body has an adequate amount of good bacteria, they secrete substances like acetate and lactate to keep bad bacteria from taking over and causing infection.
There are several different types of biotics. Some are well known, while others aren't. They include:
- Prebiotic: this type of biotic helps to increase the growth of good bacteria, similar to the way that fertilizer helps plants in a garden grow.
- Probiotic: this is the most common type of biotic added to food and uses live bacteria to boost the number of good bacteria in the body.
- Synbiotic: this is a blending of both prebiotics and probiotics. It isn’t a term that is commonly used when it comes to food.
- Macrobiotic: this is associated with a highly restrictive diet plan made famous by several celebrities, but is often criticized by experts for lacking nutrients. The diet emphasizes whole grains and raw fruits and vegetables that are still "living". It is aimed at preventing disease and extending longevity, but because it is so restrictive, it can lead to nutrient deficiencies. It is similar to a vegan diet.
- Antibiotic: most people are familiar with antibiotics since most have taken antibiotics for an illness at one point or another. Antibiotic means it will kill certain bad bacteria. There are several classes of antibiotics, all effective at treating the overgrowth of different types of bad bacteria.
Macrobiotic diets and antibiotics should not be confused with prebiotics or probiotics. They are very different things. While there are many studies that support the use of prebiotics and probiotics, a macrobiotic diet is not an effective way to increase the good bacteria in the body, though it could have other health benefits, and antibiotics are used to treat the overgrowth of bad bacteria, not increase the good.
What’s All The Hype?
So what's all the hype about biotics? The short answer is better health. Multiple studies have shown that the use of prebiotics and probiotics can help increase good bacteria in the digestive system, which can do a number of things in the body, including:
- Aid the digestion process and get rid of embarrassing problems such as gas from certain foods, bloating, and diarrhea.
- Lowering blood pressure.
- Decrease the risk of colon cancer.
- Prebiotics, but not probiotics, have been shown to aid in allergic conditions.
- Prebiotics have also been shown to improve heart health.
There are some claims that prebiotics and probiotics can boost the immune system, but this isn't yet well substantiated. The Mayo Clinic looked at probiotic supplements as a possible way to help those with kidney stones, but found that supplements were ineffective. Also, there is no evidence that suggests that consuming prebiotics or probiotics can prevent against vaginal yeast infections, contrary to popular belief.
Not All Biotics Are Created Equal
When it comes to prebiotic, probiotic and synbiotic products and supplements, it's definitely a case of buyer beware. Not all of these products contain the same amount or same type of beneficial bacteria, making some products more effective than others.
There is currently no regulation that requires the manufacturer of prebiotic or probiotic products to list or prove how many active bacteria are in their product. According to Consumerlabs.com, an independent laboratory that has tested many of these products, you might not be getting what you paid for. So if someone is considering using one of these products, research is key. Be sure to compare products and look at all the information available before shelling out the cash.
Is It Really Worth It?
This seems to be the million dollar question. The consensus of experts is that for people with certain problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome or lactose intolerance, prebiotics and probiotics are in fact a good idea because the bacteria help to relieve the strain on the digestive tract, thus helping these problems, though experts caution that they are not a replacement for actual treatment. Another group of people who should look at supplementing these bacteria are those on antibiotic treatment for an infection.
These products can be expensive, so if someone isn't having a digestive problem, then using prebiotic or probiotic supplements on a regular basis may not provide enough of a benefit to justify the cost. The one exception to this is products like yogurt and kefir. These products have other benefits other than just good bacteria, which makes them significantly better than just a supplement. They are usually more cost effective as well. However, with supplements, it will take some research to determine which one is best in terms of the number of live bacteria, and thus which provides more of a benefit.