Probiotics may sound like the newest buzzword among the health-conscious, like ancient grains or superfoods, but probiotics differ in the fact that they are extremely small, living organisms that are often bacteria, but can also be organisms like yeasts. The probiotics currently on the market are foods or dietary supplements.
Probiotics are being studied for their potential benefit in a variety of ways, such as preventing infections, boosting the immune system, and maintaining healthy skin and a healthy nervous system. Researchers are still trying to fully understand how probiotics work, in which people they work, and what their specific health benefits are. Much of the discussion around the potential positive effects of probiotics centers on their ability to aid gastrointestinal (GI) health.
When it comes to gut health, probiotics may:
Can every person with GI issues take probiotics?
Although the idea of probiotics is not new, the scientific community is still learning which bacteria are best for a particular health issue or symptom. To date, the FDA has not approved any probiotic product to treat medical conditions. Therefore, probiotics should not be considered a replacement for GI treatments prescribed by your doctor.
There are many different bacterial species and strains that could be probiotics but may only work for certain people with certain conditions. Some bacteria may be most helpful in combination with certain other bacteria. Probiotic products vary in cost, but higher prices do not necessarily mean the probiotics are higher in quality or better in performance.
Does this sound complicated yet? Don’t worry; navigating the world of probiotics may be complicated on your own, but working closely with your doctor to understand which probiotics may be the best fit for you, based on your particular needs and concerns, can make it a lot easier.
Below is a list of common GI disorders and what we know so far about probiotics for people with these conditions. Final approval, however, should always come from your doctor, who knows your medical history best.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
Where can I find probiotics, and how do I take them and store them?
Probiotics products commonly contain bacteria from two groups, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. They naturally occur in foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut or kimchi, but can also be purchased as supplements in pill or powder form. Probiotic foods and supplements are available at the supermarket, pharmacy, or health food store, and can be ordered online. Store your probiotic according to the directions on the package. After purchasing your probiotic, be sure to ask for any additional advice from a health care professional before you start taking them.
What are any side effects?
Mild side effects, like gas and bloating, are possible, but don’t last very long. Side effects that are more serious may include allergic reactions to the probiotics, or to the ingredients included with the probiotic products. Many of the studies published on probiotics do not discuss side effects in great detail, so there may be other concerns that are currently unknown.
For people who are generally healthy, the common viewpoint is that probiotics are safe to take, but not much is known about long-term use. Probiotics can possibly cause an infection in people with weak immune systems, so keeping your doctor informed of any new health initiatives, especially if this applies to you, is very important.
If you your doctor has recommended that you take probiotic foods or supplements, take it as described to maximize the benefits and prevent them from lasting for only a short time.
Where can I obtain more information?
The American Gastroenterological Association has a patient resource page about probiotics, provided by experts in the field, but consulting your doctor is always a great place to start.