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Understanding probiotics

Use good bacteria to combat some digestive issues

From yogurts to powders and capsules, probiotic supplements have become an increasingly popular product advertised to boost your immune system and improve digestive health. But as with all supplements and over-the-counter products, take care before adding probiotics to your daily routine.

We typically think of bacteria as germs that cause disease. However, your body is full of bacteria, both good and bad. Probiotics are bacteria found naturally in the human body that can actually help prevent disease. Probiotic supplements are made to be similar to these “good bacteria” found in the gut. 

Although more scientific evidence is still needed, some studies suggest probiotics might help:

• Boost your immune system by enhancing the production of antibodies to certain vaccines.

• Produce substances that prevent infection and control inflammation.

• Prevent harmful bacteria from attaching to the gut lining and growing.

• Strengthen the mucus in your intestine and help it act as a barrier against infection.

Some of the most common digestive issues where probiotics may be beneficial include:

• Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) Bifidobacterium infantis, Sacchromyces boulardii, Lactobacillus plantarum and combination probiotics may help regulate how often people with IBS have bowel movements and may help relieve bloating from gas. 

• Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) Some studies suggest that probiotics may help reduce inflammation and delay the next bout of disease. E. coli Nissle, and a mixture of several strains of Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Streptococcus may be most beneficial.

• Infectious diarrhea Saccharomyces boulardii and Lactobacillus may help shorten the duration of infectious diarrhea. 

• Antibiotic-related diarrhea such as Clostridium difficile (C. diff) There is evidence that taking probiotics when you first start taking an antibiotic may help prevent antibiotic-related diarrhea. Saccharomyces boulardii and Lactobacillus may also help treat C. diff and prevent it from reoccurring. 

Other potential uses for probiotics include maintaining a healthy mouth and preventing/treating certain skin conditions like eczema. 

Although probiotics appear safe, you should talk to your physician before adding them to your diet and make sure your pharmacist is aware that you are taking them if you take other prescribed or over-the-counter medications.

Tera McIntosh, PharmD, is assistant professor in the department of Pharmacy Practice & Science at the University of Kentucky.

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