May 2020

Probiotics: Be Wary of Online Claims

Many people turn to Google for quick answers to health questions. But can you really believe what you read on the internet? In the case of probiotics, online health information may be misleading, a recent study showed.

Probiotics are live microorganisms (usually bacteria) found in certain dietary supplements and foods. They’re similar to beneficial bacteria that naturally live inside the human gut. And they’re touted as having many health benefits. Yet strong evidence to back up these claims is often lacking.

How can you know what to believe? The tips below are based on the study’s findings.

Consider the website’s goal

In the study, researchers Googled the word probiotics. Then they evaluated the first 150 web pages that came up. More than 40% were from commercial websites selling products. The info there was less reliable, on average, than that on other types of websites.

The takeaway: Be skeptical about hype that’s intended to sell you something.

Look for scientific evidence

The researchers also found that many websites made claims with scant scientific support. For example, there’s no conclusive evidence that probiotics actually help with respiratory illnesses. But some web pages claimed they do.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), promising uses for probiotics include:

  • Preventing antibiotic-related diarrhea

  • Treating periodontal (gum) disease

  • Helping manage ulcerative colitis (a type of inflammatory bowel disease)

Even for these uses, the NCCIH says that much remains to be learned. It’s often unclear which probiotics work best or who benefits most.

For accurate, complete information, look for high-quality, science-based resources, such as the NCCIH.

Be aware of possible risks

In the study, only one-fourth of web pages noted possible side effects of probiotics. Yet potential risks include infections and other harmful effects of the bacteria. Such problems are more likely in people with severe illnesses or weak immune systems.

Play it safe. Check with your healthcare provider before taking a probiotic supplement. Google is no substitute for your own doctor’s advice.




Online Medical Reviewer: Brian McDonough, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2020
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