The role of probiotic supplementation to boost overall health has been widely publicized in the media recently. This information can sometimes be confusing and overwhelming. This article will explain what probiotics are and discuss the most recent evidence available for probiotic supplementation.
What are probiotics? Probiotics are the “good bacteria” that can be found in fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, pickles, buttermilk, and soft chesses such as Gouda. Probiotics enter our bodies naturally when we eat foods containing these bacteria, which then settle primarily in our gastrointestinal tract. There are several strains of the bacteria and specific strains are thought to be effective for certain conditions. Generally, probiotics are “symbiotic” organisms that help metabolize foods, absorb nutrients, prevent colonization of harmful bacteria in our gut, and help maintain intestinal health. Some people take probiotic supplements that are available over the counter in hopes of benefiting from the extra bacteria.
There are several studies under way to determine the value of taking probiotics. However, there is still not enough definitive evidence to support the use of these supplements. Some of the ongoing studies include the role of probiotics in fighting or preventing infections in the digestive tract caused by harmful bacteria. There is some information to support the use of probiotics in certain cases of diarrhea, constipation, and some diseases of the digestive system caused by inflammation. There may also be a role for probiotics in the prevention or treatment of allergies, including eczema.*
The most convincing scientific evidence for the use of probiotics is for antibiotic-associated diarrhea. When we take antibiotics for bacterial infections, they will often treat the “bad bacteria” but they will also wipe out the gut of the “good bacteria.” This process can lead to diarrhea. When you eat foods rich in probiotics or take supplements during and after the antibiotic course, diarrhea symptoms will greatly diminish or can be prevented. This works by replenishing the normal flora in the gut. Probiotics have also been shown to shorten the duration of diarrhea during a viral illness. More research needs to be done on the role of probiotics in preventing respiratory tract infections and actual treatment of several inflammatory conditions of the bowel, as well as improving overall health.
So, what are the negative issues with taking probiotics? Probiotics are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Therefore, the product you think you are getting may not contain the ingredients listed on the label. Additionally, there are several products on the market and the manufacturers aren’t obligated to list all the ingredients. There are several strains of probiotics; it may be difficult for a consumer to make the right choice when buying supplements for a specific condition. Probiotics are also expensive.
If you are considering adding probiotic supplements to your diet, check with your doctor or nurse practitioner before starting any new regimen. People with weak immune systems should be very careful about taking probiotic supplements because they can cause infection. It is much safer to eat a balanced diet in addition to foods containing probiotics. As with any product on the market that is not controlled by the FDA, caution is always warranted.
*References available upon request
Update on Flu Shots this season:
Flu shots will be available in Student Health Services for all current Loyola students, faculty and staff at the beginning of October. The fee is $20 payable via cash, check or student account charge. No appointment necessary. Walk-ins welcome. Student Health Services is located in the basement of the Danna Student Center and can be contacted at 504.865.3326. Be on the lookout for an email notification of the flu shot arrival.