North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

August 19, 2009

You’ve seen and heard about ‘probiotics,’ but what do they do?

By Robert Ellis

Special to The North Jefferson News

You can’t turn the television on today and not see a commercial for probiotics.

Probiotics, which means, “for life,” have been used for centuries as natural components in health-promoting foods. Experiments into the benefits of probiotic therapies suggest a range of potentially beneficial medicinal uses.

What are they?

Probiotics are live microorganisms, which, when taken in adequate amounts, provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition.

The human body contains billions of beneficial bacteria and other types of microorganisms which inhabit the digestive tract. They help with digestion and provide protection from other, harmful bacteria that can cause infection.

Usually, the term “probiotics” refers to dietary supplements or foods that contain beneficial or “good” bacteria that are similar to those normally found in the body. Although not necessary for good health, probiotics may provide some of the same health benefits that the bacteria already existing in the body do.

There is a growing public and scientific interest in probiotics. Researchers are studying whether if taken as foods or supplements they can help treat or prevent illness. There is encouraging evidence that probiotics may help:

• Treat diarrhea, especially following treatment with certain antibiotics

• Prevent and treat vaginal yeast infections and urinary tract infections

• Treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

• Manage lactose intolerance

• Shorten the duration of intestinal infections

• Prevent and treat inflammation following colon surgery (pouchitis)

• Reduce bladder cancer recurrence

• Prevent eczema in children

Where do I find probiotics?

Probiotics are available to consumers mainly in the form of dietary supplements (capsules, tablets, and powders) and in food. Manufacturers are promoting the use of food products that contain probiotics such as yogurt, milk, juice, soy drinks and other snack foods. In probiotic foods and supplements, the bacteria may have been present originally or added during preparation.

Side effects and risks

Some live microorganisms have a long history of use as probiotics without causing illness in people. However, their safety has not been thoroughly studied by the FDA. More information is especially needed on how safe they are for young children, elderly people, and people with compromised immune systems.

Probiotics’ side effects, if they occur, tend to be mild and digestive in nature (such as gas or bloating). More serious effects have been seen in some people. Probiotics might theoretically cause infections that need to be treated with antibiotics, especially in people with underlying health conditions. Additionally, they could also cause unhealthy metabolic activities such as too much stimulation of the immune system.

Other points to consider

• No probiotic therapy should be used in place of conventional medical care or to delay seeking medical care.

• Effects from one species or strain of probiotics do not necessarily hold true for others, or even for different preparations of the same species or strain.

• If you use a probiotic product and experience an effect that concerns you, contact your health care provider.

Some researchers believe probiotics may improve overall general health by improving immune function and preventing infections. With the fast approaching flu season and the threat of Swine Flu rising, a product with the potential of improving immunity naturally could help.

Prevention of infections before they occur is clearly a better alternative than attempting to cure them after you are sick. Certain probiotics may be a safe, cost-effective approach that adds a barrier against microbial infection. However, more research is needed to confirm the effectiveness of probiotics and their specific role in healthcare.

As with any dietary or herbal supplement, consult your doctor before starting any new treatment.

Robert Ellis is a Pharm D candidate from Samford University’s McWhorter School of Pharmacy, interning at The Pharmacy in Mt. Olive. The Pharmacy can be reached at 631-1201.