Medical Moment: Probiotics, Yes or No?

Medical Moment: Probiotics, Yes or No?

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Dr. Heather Linder answers this week’s question: Should I take  probiotics?

Dr. Heather Linder

Dr. Heather Linder

The idea of purposely eating bacteria may seem strange, but maintaining a balance of good bacteria is essential for optimal health.

Probiotics, often known as “good bacteria,” are live microorganisms that live in your gut and help improve digestion while boosting your immune system.

Many of us obtain our first dose of probiotics from our mother as we pass through the birth canal. Some preliminary studies have shown that babies born by cesarean may have lower amounts of good bacteria and may be more prone to allergies and infections.

The gut contains about 100 trillion microorganisms and over 500 species of bacteria. Antibiotics, a diet high in processed foods, and stress can upset the balance of good versus bad bacteria. When you take antibiotics, they can destroy both the good and bad bacteria in the gut. Therefore, it is important to take probiotics for at least one to two weeks after completing the course of antibiotics to repopulate your gut with the good bacteria.

How can I get probiotics?

You can obtain probiotics through various fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, some cheeses, sauerkraut, miso or through a supplement.

What type of probiotic should I take?

It is important to look at the amount of bacteria in the supplement, which is usually listed as CFU (colony forming units). Be sure to follow the recommendations for storage, since probiotics are live organisms that usually need to be stored away from heat. It should be noted that probiotics are considered supplements and are not regulated by the FDA.

Independent laboratory testing has shown that not all probiotic brands have the number of live organisms that they advertise.

Different strains of probiotics have been shown to treat and prevent different types of illnesses.  A few examples are listed below: 

  • Lactobacillus: some strains can prevent and/or treat yeast infections, bladder infections, irritable bowel syndrome, traveler’s diarrhea, lactose intolerance, eczema and respiratory infections (especially in children).
  • Bifidobacteria: some strains may help with irritable bowel syndrome, prevent dental cavities, and may even improve cholesterol levels.
  • Saccharomyces boulardii: a yeast that may be especially helpful in preventing and treating diarrhea caused by antibiotic use since the antibiotics won’t kill this yeast.

What diseases can probiotics help?

  • Irritable bowel syndrome
    Probiotics including Bifidobacterium infantis, Saccharomyces boulardii, Lactobacillus plantarum may help regulate bowel movements and improve gas and bloating 
  • Inflammatory bowel syndrome (Crohns disease and ulcerative colitis)
  • Probiotics including Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Streptococcus may help reduce inflammation and improve symptoms.
  • Infectious diarrhea
    Probiotics Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus casei may help treat diarrhea caused by rotavirus (a common virus that causes diarrhea in babies and small children). Lactobacillus and Saccharomyces boulardii may help treat and shorten the course of gastroenteritis.      
  • Colic in infants:Lactobacillus reuteri may reduce crying time, regurgitation, and increase the frequency of stools in some infants.
  • Cold and flu: Studies have shown that Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium animalisgiven to children (age 3 to 5) for 6 months (Nov – May) has been shown to reduce the incidence of fever by 73%, coughing by 62% and runny nose by 59% and also shorten the duration of symptoms by 48%.
  • Weight loss: A Canadian study found that women taking the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus had greater weight loss compared to a placebo during a 12 week diet (9.7 lbs with probiotic compared to 5.7 pounds in the placebo group). However, the men taking the probiotic did not lose more weight compared to placebo.

Probiotics have become an increasing focus of research. Better studies are needed to more clearly determine which types of probiotics are effective at treating which diseases. In fact, there is even a new area of medicine called fecal bacteriotherapy where they are performing stool transplants. Gastroenterologists are taking stool with lots of good bacteria from healthy individuals and transplanting it into patients who are suffering from Clostridium difficile, which is an intestinal infection caused by antibiotics.

Although antibiotics play a critical role in treating infections and killing the “bad bacteria,” we will continue to learn more about how increasing the “good bacteria” may also improve our health and immunity.

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