Understanding Probiotics and Who May Benefit from Taking Them

Contributing ColumnistApril 6, 2014 

From yogurts to powders and capsules, probiotic supplements have become an increasingly popular product advertised to boost your immune system and improve digestive health. But with all supplements and over-the-counter products, caution and care should be taken before adding probiotics to your daily routine.

Probiotics are living microscopic organisms or bacteria, found naturally in the human body. Probiotic supplements are made to be similar to the microorganisms that are referred to as the "good bacteria" found in the gut.

Although more strong scientific evidence to support specific uses of probiotics for most conditions is still needed, some studies suggest that probiotics may be helpful in some cases.

Boosting your immune system by enhancing the production of antibodies to certain vaccines is one possible benefit.

Producing substances that prevent infection and control inflammation is another. Preventing harmful bacteria from attaching to the gut lining and growing can aid in strengthening the mucus in your intestine and help it act as a barrier against infection.

Some of the most common digestive issues where probiotics may be beneficial include:

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)— Bifidobacterium infantis, Sacchromyces boulardii, Lactobacillus plantarum and combination probiotics may help regulate how often people with IBS have bowel movements and may help relieve bloating from gas.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) — Some studies suggest that probiotics may help reduce inflammation and delay the next bout of disease. E. coli Nissle and a mixture of several strains of Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Streptococcus may be most beneficial.

Infectious diarrhea — Saccharomyces boulardii and Lactobacillus may help shorten the duration of infectious diarrhea.

Antibiotic—related diarrhea such as Clostridium difficile (C. diff) — There is evidence that taking probiotics when you first start taking an antibiotic may help prevent antibiotic-related diarrhea. Saccharomyces boulardii and Lactobacillus may also help treat C. diff and prevent it from reoccurring.

Other potential uses for probiotics include maintaining a healthy mouth and preventing and treating certain skin conditions like eczema.

Although probiotics appear safe for most people, you should talk to your physician before adding them to your diet and make sure your pharmacist is aware that you are taking them if you take other prescribed or over-the-counter medications. Studies suggest that probiotics usually have few side effects. However, data on safety, particularly long-term safety, are limited, and the risk of serious side effects may be greater in people who have underlying health conditions.

In addition, probiotics are considered dietary supplements and therefore the health benefits claimed by manufacturers of probiotics are not FDA regulated or FDA approved. This means they are not standardized, and are made in different ways by different companies with different additives; reading the label is very important.

Aimee Adams is a UK HealthCare clinical pharmacist

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