Do probiotic drinks really work?

Our expert Dr Mark Porter shares his advice on whether probiotic drinks can help your gut and give you more energy.

Probiotic drinks and supplements are more popular than ever, with the industry worth £1.4 billion a year – and still growing. They promise a host of health benefits, but are probiotic drinks worth the money and can they help our digestive and immune systems?

Saga’s expert Dr Mark Porter has all the facts and advice on whether you should take them or not.

An illustration of friendly gut bacteriaCredit: John Devolle

Dr Mark Porter says:

Probiotic drinks, yogurts and supplements contain high doses of ‘friendly bacteria’, such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, which are supposed to improve health and wellbeing by altering the bacterial population in your bowel.

I have never taken one. And I don’t recommend them to my patients very often either. At least not yet.

We have only recently begun to understand the true complexity and importance of our symbiotic relationship with the trillions of microbes that live in our bowels (mainly the colon).

They depend on us for a cosy environment and constant supply of nutrients and in turn perform myriad useful functions, ranging from aiding digestion and manufacturing vitamins to helping the immune system by deterring unwanted invaders and helping to regulate everything from inflammation to fat metabolism.

Can probiotics help?

However, there is still little compelling high-grade evidence that probiotics improve the day-to-day functions of an average person’s gut bacteria.

They can help in specific situations — such as reducing the likelihood of antibiotic-induced diarrhoea and helping some people with irritable bowel syndrome.

But given that we all have a unique mix of bacteria inherited from our mothers, it is not surprising that we have yet to discover a daily panacea that boosts health and wellbeing, as well as overall gut health.

Nothing beats a balanced diet

Until we fully understand the role of probiotics, and how to use them, I would stick to more basic steps to nurture the bacteria that are already living inside you.

We believe that some of our most useful bacteria tend to thrive on a diet low in sugar and refined carbohydrates (such as white flour) and rich in fibre, so cut back on sweet things, white bread and pasta, and eat plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals.

And, while you should always heed medical advice, try to avoid unnecessary antibiotics. They act a bit like a bomb in your gut and can cause widespread disruption to the bacterial population – just one reason doctors are more careful when prescribing them these days.

Dr Mark Porter

Written by Dr Mark Porter