It seems you can’t attend a group dinner or scroll through your Instagram feed without a candid discussion of digestion and probiotics. The reason? Over 60 million American currently suffer from some kind of gut condition, and 3.9 million people are currently using a probiotic, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. That number is likely higher if you count the explosion of probiotic-infused consumer packaged goods products like chips, ice cream and even beer. With the glut of probiotics and probiotic-dosed foods and drink, combined with constant recommendations from non-scientists or doctors, it’s getting harder to navigate the options and find the right solution.
While taking the advice of a friend over dinner might not be dangerous, there are better ways to spend $60 than on a bottle of probiotics that will be neutralized as soon as it hits your stomach acid or is meant to treat an entirely different condition than what you intend. Microbiome researcher Dr. Brian McFarlin of University of Texas who oversees clinical trials of probiotics, shares that the challenges for consumers trying to locate the right probiotic for any particular gut condition is a lack of regulation and published research. Many companies do test them but don’t publish their findings.
“Some of the big companies have funded studies on probiotics they are selling into the market but have not published the findings either to prevent a competitor from seeing what they did and copying the product or because the product has been proven ineffective,” shares Dr. McFarlin. There is no way to know the difference. He points out that it gets even trickier with unregulated labeling, when bottles, “will say ‘university tested and approved’ which can be code for ‘we tested this product but did not find what we wanted to find.’ If they found what they had thought they were going to find, they might be promoting this instead.”
That said, some probiotic companies are getting serious about testing their strains in clinical trials and sharing the findings with the public, despite the lack of FDA regulation or exposing their work to competitors. Dr. McFarlin recently oversaw a clinical trial at University of Texas that examined the efficacy of a new probiotic strain developed in Chicago by Just Thrive on leaky gut. Dr. McFarlin’s group found that the spore-based probiotic they tested was 42% effective in reducing the biomarkers indicative of leaky gut. While not 100% efficacy, this number is a major step forward in treating individual gut conditions with a specific probiotic protocol. The findings from which can be accessed by anyone.
So what should a smart consumer suffering from a gut condition do? First, Dr. McFarlin says, beware. “Because of the dietary supplement act, companies are not required to do any research at all; as long as they aren’t super specific with what they claim, they can do whatever they want.” Instead of taking marketing labels on the backs of bottles, read through original clinical trial write-ups, often found at the US National Library of Medicine or PubMed, to access real data on treatments before plunking down any money. And once you do find something that appears it could work for you, he suggests that you, “Try different things out and see what works.”