By Ross Pelton, RPh, PhD, CCN
Scientific Director, Essential Formulas
The weekly TV program 60 Minutes aired a very disappointing segment on probiotics on Sunday June 28, 2020. The segment, which was titled Do Probiotics Actually Do Anything? was highly critical of probiotics and essentially claimed that probiotic supplements are virtually useless. Instead of answering questions, the one-sided 60 Minutes segment seemed designed to create doubt and confusion among viewers and consumers.
It is regrettable that 60 Minutes chose to produce a program that seemed designed to promote several common myths and misconceptions regarding probiotics. For example, the ‘experts’ that were interviewed questioned the safety and efficacy of probiotic supplements, claimed that probiotics are not well-regulated and suggested that perceived benefits from probiotics may be due to the placebo effect. The 60 Minutes program ignored the fact that thousands of scientific studies have been published on the benefits of probiotics.
Probiotics are here to stay. The U.S. government has funded hundreds of millions of dollars for research into the benefits and effects of probiotics and the human microbiome. Also, millions of Americans use probiotics regularly to help treat gastrointestinal problems such as gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation.
Probiotic and microbiome science are growing and evolving rapidly. In addition to GI effects, we now know that probiotic bacteria have a role in regulating our immune system and our moods and emotions. In fact, we now know that there is constant communication between the gut and the brain via the microbiome-gut-brain axis.
There are thousands of different species of probiotic bacteria and each individual person has their own unique microbiome “fingerprint”. Thus, a strain of bacteria that works for one individual may not provide the same benefit for another person.
In the future, we will learn much more about how to assess and evaluate an individual’s microbiome and be able to create microbiome protocols to help treat various diseases. Although some studies suggest that various probiotic strains have specific therapeutic benefit(s), we are far from being able to make broad therapeutic recommendations regarding probiotic therapy.
For decades, we’ve known that probiotic bacteria play important roles in the regulation of human health but until recently, probiotic mechanisms of action have remained a mystery. The mystery of how probiotics function is starting to be solved. Scientists are learning that the primary function of probiotic bacteria is to ferment non-digestible dietary fibers, which results in the creation of compounds called postbiotic metabolites. It is these postbiotic metabolites that have important health-regulating effects for humans.
It is unfortunate that the producers of 60 Minutes chose to produce a program that was designed to make people feel that probiotics may not be safe and are not useful.
Probiotic bacteria and probiotic-created postbiotic metabolites are an exciting new frontier in microbiome science that continues deepen our understanding of how important our bacteria are to our health and wellbeing.