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Who should take probiotics?

Probiotics are generally thought safe for healthy individuals. People with chronic diseases or a weakened immune system should always speak with their health care provider.

Probiotics have been around for many years, but experts are still figuring out how they work and who they may be the best fit for.

Some of the things probiotics may be able to do are:

  • Boost your immune system (your body’s defense against infections).
  • Help prevent infection and sickness.
  • Stop harmful bacteria (tiny germs) from attaching to the gut lining and growing there.
  • Tell your cells to build up the mucus in your gut and help it act as a barrier against infection.
  • Stop toxins released by certain bacteria that can make you sick.
  • Promote the growth of other bacteria that can improve your health.
  • Keep your skin and nervous system healthy.

Probiotics can also help with keeping your gut healthy and treating certain gastrointestinal (GI) health problems. But, probiotics are not all one size fits all. In fact, their differences are surprising. These living, microscopic (very small) organisms, which are often bacteria, but can also be other organisms like yeasts, come in a variety of bacterial groups. These groups have different strains and each of these strains have many types of species. The probiotics currently on the market are foods or dietary supplements.

When it comes to your gut health, certain strains of probiotics help common GI disorders, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and infectious and antibiotic-related diarrhea, more than others. Much of the research to date has focused on species and strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium that are thought to have probiotic effects.

Talking to your health care provider can help you choose the right probiotics for your GI condition, based on the latest research, as can reading patient resources about probiotics from reputable organizations, like the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). All of AGA’s patient resource pages have been reviewed by specialists for patients.

Irritable bowel syndrome
IBS can cause diarrhea (loose stool), constipation (hard stool or trouble passing stool) or both. Patients can also experience the sensation of bloating (swelling of the belly). Bifidobacterium infantis, Sacchromyces boulardii, Lactobacillus plantarum and a blend of bacteria, are some probiotics that have been studied in people with IBS and may help reduce these symptoms.

Inflammatory bowel disease
Probiotics may help IBD, which is when the immune system causes inflammation in the digestive tract. IBD can cause pain, diarrhea, weight loss and blood in the stool. Some studies have suggested that probiotics may help lessen inflammation. Specifically, probiotics, such as E.coli Nissle, and a mixture of the strains of Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Streptococcus may be the most helpful out of the probiotics tested.

Infectious diarrhea
Infectious diarrhea is caused by harmful bacteria, viruses or parasites. Probiotics, such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus casei, may be helpful in treating diarrhea caused by rotavirus, which often affects babies and small children. Many strains of Lactobacillus and a strain of the yeast Saccharomyces boulardii may help treat and shorten the course of infectious diarrhea.

Antibiotic-related diarrhea
Antibiotics target harmful and beneficial bacteria. Sometimes taking an antibiotic can cause infectious diarrhea by lowering the number of beneficial microorganisms in your gut. Most of this type of diarrhea is not infectious, but happens when the number of beneficial microorganisms in your gut is lowered and bacteria that may not usually give you any trouble grows out of control.

For example, Clostridium difficile (C. diff.) is a major cause of diarrhea in hospitalized patients and people in long-term care places, like nursing homes. It also tends to reoccur after treatment with antibiotics. There is research that shows taking probiotics like Saccharomyces boulardii, may help prevent this.

Probiotics and children
Research about the use of probiotics in children has also grown, and some studies have shown that probiotics may be helpful in treating infectious diarrhea in babies and small children. Researchers are still not sure if probiotics can help children who also have IBD. You should not give any probiotics to your child before talking with your health care provider. There can be differences in how the same probiotics work in you, versus your child.

Are probiotics’ in your future?
Probiotics are generally thought to be safe for healthy individuals, but we don’t know the long-term consequences. For individuals who have a chronic disease, their immune system has been weakened, or otherwise vulnerable (such as seniors), patients should seek advice from their health care provider to see if probiotics are appropriate for them.

In general, probiotics should not be used without information from a medical professional. The potential harm and benefit should be considered, like with other treatments. Also, to date, the FDA has not approved any probiotic product to treat medical conditions.

Remember, probiotics should not be considered a replacement for GI treatments prescribed by your health care provider. Work closely with your provider to help you safely decide which probiotics could be right for you or your little ones.

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