The Benefits of Probiotics
With many people constantly chasing after the proverbial “magic bullet” for general improvement of one’s health, it’s hard not to believe the outrageous claims made by pharmaceutical companies when trying to push their new products. Probiotics are marketed not only for general gastrointestinal health associated with “regularity” but also for the treatment or prevention of many conditions: Antibiotic-associated diarrhea, allergies, cholesterol, c. diff infections, irritable bowel syndrome, and necrotizing enterocolitis to name a few. Probiotics have been on pharmacy shelves for decades and much research has been done on these organisms, yet much remains to be proved.
Our bodies work to maintain a balance of organisms within organs and tissues. In our gastrointestinal tract these organisms help to metabolize food, absorb nutrients, and prevent infection. Our normal flora contains hundreds of species bacteria, fungi, and parasites. These organisms are referred to as “probiotics”. Some of the common probiotics include Lactobacillus acidophilus, Saccharomyces boulardii, and Bifidobacterium infantis. Each of these probiotics are available in many of the popular probiotic brands on pharmacy shelves. Some are even available in combination products with other probiotics. There are also foods containing probiotics, including yogurt. Look for “contains live active cultures” on food packages to find other foods containing these organisms. All probiotics are not created equally and some may be more beneficial than others for the treatment and prevention of certain conditions.
One of the most commonly recommended uses for probiotics is for the prevention of antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Taking a probiotic is thought to replenish the good bacteria in the gut that may be eliminated by antibiotics, thereby preventing the over colonization of harmful bacteria. Studies show that people who take a probiotic along with antibiotics have a reduced risk of 42-47% of developing diarrhea. Another way of looking at it is that about 8 people need to be treated to prevent 1 additional case of antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Lactobacillus, Saccharomyces, and Bifidobacterium species are among the top probiotics to help prevent this.
Unfortunately, unlike the prevention of antibiotic-associated diarrhea, there is no reliable data that shows that taking probiotics on a regular basis helps to maintain “regularity”. It is thought that probiotics are generally safe to take with little side effects to worry about. Sepsis has been reported on patients who are severely ill or immunocompromised, and therefore should be used with caution. Claims that combination products are more beneficial that single bacteria containing products has also not been validated. Lastly, there have not been any reputable head-to-head studies comparing different strains of probiotics.
For each person beginning a probiotic, the risks and benefits need to be weighed. Consult a doctor or pharmacist to consider if a probiotic is likely to help your condition and to help steer you to the the correct strain.