Blog | Friday, May 27, 2016

Risks of probiotics: Who cares?

Earlier this year I read about a medical study that concluded that a diet high in saturated fat won't kill you after all. Moreover, piling on polyunsaturated fat won't save you.

Hee hee. I love this stuff. Established medical dogma back flips every 10 years. Butter in, butter out. Hormone replacement treatment for perimenopausal women is mandatory, until it isn't.

Who knows what to believe when even doctors are confused or just don't know.

We have a medical industrial complex that is a beast that needs to be fed. It fuels itself on our fidelity to medical practices that are labeled as truths. ”Wellness” rules. How many decades did the public and the medical community preach that the prostate-specific antigen blood test saved men's lives? While I believe that urologists were sincere in their mistaken beliefs and practices, there was a whole industry behind the scenes that was fueling the fire. It was good business for hospital operating rooms, medical device companies and radiation therapy suites.

Of course, you could make this same point with respect to my own specialty of gastroenterology, as I often do on this blog, as readers know.

Just because something sounds true, or we want it to be true, doesn't make it true.

Is obesity really a killer on the loose? When a reputable study is published that pulls back from this draconian conclusion, what happens? The study is attacked by those who either truly believe that the study is flawed or by those who are threatened by it. Mammography is a superb example of this phenomenon. It is increasingly recognized that mammography is deeply flawed, problematic and harmful, but try discussing this with a mammography zealot. If you dare to do so, don the Kevlar first.

Probiotics are the rage for maladies spanning digestive disorders to depression to chronic fatigue. Do they work? Does it matter? The science girding most of their claims is porous, deceptive or absent. We should demand that their products be rigorously and independently tested, but this will not happen. Why should these companies tamper with perfection? We're already buying their potions faster than you can say “gluten-free.” Why risk the pesky scientific method that might cast a penumbra of doubt on their healing claims?

Think about the probiotic process. Folks are swallowing billions (that's billions with a ‘b’) of bacteria every day. Of course, these are “good bacteria,” little microscopic elves that will gobble up diseases that are beyond the reach of conventional medicines. First, let's call them what they are: germs. Is there any brave voice out there who is willing to vocalize concern about changing the human flora which took a gazillion years to develop through evolution? Are bifidobacteria really smarter than millions of years of natural selection?

Years from now, when probiotics are off the shelves, folks will nod their heads wondering how millions of us swallowed billions of germs just because we wanted to believe.

Skeptics of the world unite!

This post by Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, appeared at MD Whistleblower. Dr. Kirsch is a full time practicing physician and writer who addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.