Making Sense of Probiotics
We spend billions of dollars each year ridding ourselves of bacteria with soaps, sanitizers, and cleaning products. So, you’d think a capsule full of millions of bacteria might be a little hard to swallow.
Yet a growing number of people and researchers are finding good reason to do just that. Probiotics, which literally mean “for life,” are “good” bacteria that can benefit your gut.
Trillions of microscopic bacteria already live in your digestive tract, regulating the health and function of your colon. Some bacteria harm the colon, causing conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Recent research has even linked certain bacteria to heart attacks, strokes, and obesity.
Health food stores have been selling probiotics for years as pills, powders, or capsules, to improve digestive health. These “good” bacteria are also found naturally in foods like yogurt, buttermilk, sauerkraut, and tofu. Dannon’s Activia yogurt and DanActive drinkable yogurt are fortified with “good” bacteria.
So how do you know if and when to take a probiotic?
“Making sense of probiotics choices available in health food stores, pharmacies, and grocery stores can be incredibly confusing. Not all probiotics are the same. Substituting one for another may cause you to lose the beneficial effect. And higher doses don’t always mean better results,” says Allan Peck, MD, gastroenterologist with TriHealth Digestive Institute.
Probiotics to Reduce Diarrhea
Peck points out that numerous scientific studies focus on how to use “good” bacteria to treat diarrhea resulting from antibiotic use, infection, traveler’s diarrhea, and C. Difficile. Probiotics such as Florastor and Culturelle have shown a positive effect in reducing diarrhea.
Managing Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Research trials investigating probiotics such as Align for irritable bowel syndrome are increasing and have documented some improvement of symptoms, including decreased abdominal pain, reduced flatulence, and abdominal bloating, and normalized bowel movements.
Not a Cure-All
Peck has witnessed patients who gain benefit from probiotics and often recommends them in addition to medical therapy.
“I caution my patients that none of the probiotics have proven to be a game changer in curing disease,” Peck says. He continues, “Trying a probiotic can’t hurt if you’re wanting to improve your digestive health. If you’re trying to treat a specific problem, however, it’s best to consult a physician for guidance.”
Peck concludes, “We’re just skimming the surface with our knowledge of bacteria in the digestive tract. Our hope is that as we understand these bacteria more fully, we’ll find a clear pathway to treating or preventing a variety of gastrointestinal diseases.”
Not All Probiotics Are Created Equal
Probiotics are not all alike. These “good” bacteria in foods or dietary supplements that promote, support and maintain a healthy body system have different effects on the digestive tract and require different dosages for maximum benefit.
Most probiotics in the U.S. are available without a prescription. Because they do not undergo rigorous analysis by the Food & Drug Administration, they cannot claim to treat, cure, or prevent disease.
“When I recommend probiotics to my patients, it’s generally as an adjunct to their primary treatment. The probiotics won’t hurt you, and they may help in certain circumstances,” says Dr. Peck
Probiotics that doctors commonly recommend to their patients include:
- Align for symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
- Culturelle for diarrhea caused by infectious bacteria or antibiotics and for irritable bowel symptoms
- Florastor for prevention or treatment of antibiotic-associated diarrhea. It also helps control difficult-to-treat C. Difficile bacteria, which produces toxins that damage the lining of the colon. The bacteria frequently occur in people inhabiting hospitals and nursing homes.
- VSL#3, which may help manage inflammatory bowel disease, according to some studies.
Dr. Peck suggests that you talk to your doctor if you wish to try probiotic treatment for a significant disease. For information on using probiotics for general digestive health, he recommends WebMD.com
Last Updated: May 01, 2019