What exactly are probiotics?
According to a 2001 consensus document from the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host. Simply stated, probiotics are what many people call “friendly bacteria” or “good bacteria.” They are bacteria that live in the body and help it work well. Additionally, probiotics are thought to help defend the body from infections caused by unfriendly bacteria or other germs. The proposed health benefits of probiotics have undergone increasingly rigorous scientific evaluation in recent years, and there is now evidence for their use in treating and preventing some human diseases. However, community use of probiotics many times goes beyond the specific indications. Given the increasingly widespread use of probiotics in both community and healthcare settings, it is important to have an understanding of the risks and benefits of probiotic use.
At the California Health & Longevity Institute we perform individual health care assessments for our patients as well as discuss the risks and benefits of all possible treatment and prevention options. See our tips below for the latest recommendations on probiotic use for treatment and prevention of disease.
How do probiotics work?
The exact way that probiotics work is still being studied, even though we have an understanding of some of the benefits. A probiotic or its product must survive long enough to reach the intestine and eventually adhere to the intestinal epithelium to provide benefit. Probiotics must also be resistant to gastric acid digestion and to bile salts so that they can reach the intestine. Most probiotics are strains of bacteria, such as Bifidobacterium or Lactobacillus species, but they may also be nonbacterial microorganisms, such as yeasts.
What are the positive benefits of probiotics?
The general benefits of probiotics vary depending on the indication for use and the strain of the microorganism used. Below is a list of the currently described positive benefits of probiotics:
- In the gut, probiotics may help to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and therefore minimize infection, such as acute infectious diarrhea. In specific, probiotics may reduce the severity and shorten the duration of diarrheal illness.
- Some smaller studies have shown improvement in constipation with the use of probiotics, improving bowel movement frequency and stool consistency.
- Probiotics may enhance gut barrier function and influence the release of inflammatory signals from immune cells within the intestine. So probiotics may prevent infection, boost immune function and help with immune-mediated processes, such as allergic disease and eczema.
- There is some evidence that probiotics promote the growth of bacteria that can improve your gut health, which may improve symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome, such as gas and bloating.
- Some strains of probiotics release compounds that help to reduce pain perception, and therefore may reduce functional abdominal pain associated with irritable bowel syndrome.
Are all probiotics alike?
No, not all probiotics are the same; as a result, benefits observed clinically with one type of probiotic are not necessarily generalizable to another. Furthermore, safety concerns may differ from one type of probiotic to another. Studies on probiotics have included many different strains and combinations of probiotics, making clear guidelines about what probiotic to use for a specific clinical result difficult. So, talk with your doctor to make sure you select the probiotic that best targets your goal of therapy.
What are the limitations of probiotics?
The decision to use a probiotic should be considered in combination with the anticipated benefit; available alternative therapies; and the clarity of the available data in showing a benefit, costs, and personal preferences. Working with your physician to understand the benefits of probiotics can help to ensure realistic expectations for use. More studies are needed to allow for better guidelines and recommendations regarding probiotic use.
Who should avoid probiotics?
Generally, probiotics have few side effects and risks. But adverse reactions can occur as with any supplement, medication or therapy. The most common side effect in healthy adults is mild digestive symptoms, such as gas. In individuals with a serious underlying medical problem or a weakened immune system, adverse reactions can include dangerous infections, so it is important to talk with your physician before using a probiotic.