Probiotics Offer Multiple Benefits

Although people often think of bacteria and other microorganisms as harmful, probiotics can provide health benefits to the human body. Available as supplements or in fermented food products, they can boost health in a number of ways.

Probiotics are live microorganisms intended to have health benefits. Many microorganisms help our bodies function properly. However, not all probiotics are the same. Various strains of bacteria produce different effects. For example, one strain may fight against cavity-causing organisms in the mouth, without the need to pass on to the gut. Other types of bacteria have proven to be helpful in treating diarrhea, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Products in which probiotics can be found are some yogurts, other dairy products containing probiotics, such as Lactobacillus milk or kefir, some cheeses, kimchi and sauerkraut.

Data from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey indicated that about 4 million American adults had used probiotics or prebiotics (dietary substances that promote growth of beneficial bacteria over harmful ones) in the past 30 days. Probiotics or prebiotics were the third most commonly used dietary supplement among adults, other than vitamins and minerals, and the use of probiotics quadrupled between 2007 and 2012.

Although much remains to be learned about the mechanisms of probiotics within the body, their effects and precise quantities that can benefit various physical functions, research suggests that probiotics may have a number of effects in the body. And various probiotics can act in different ways. For example, probiotics might stabilize the digestive tract’s barriers against undesirable microorganisms or product substances that inhibit their growth; help maintain a desirable community of microorganisms; help the community of microorganisms in the digestive tract return to normal after being disturbed (for example by a disease or an antibiotic); outcompete undesirable microorganisms; and stimulate the immune response, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Typically, probiotics are safe in the amounts usually found in foods. Most healthy adults can safely add foods or dietary supplements containing probiotics to their diets. The unknowns in the probiotics equation are which strains of bacteria are most helpful and which doses are ideal. People who are lactose intolerant may experience stomach discomfort if dairy products provide the source of probiotics. In that case, dairy-free probiotics present a better choice.

Probiotic dietary supplements may not be advisable if you have a weakened immune system, suffer from frequent infections or if you’re allergic to the probiotic source, such as dairy. Take probiotic dietary supplements with caution if you are taking an antibiotic or a prescription drug that affects your immune system, are being treated for a fungal infection or have pancreatitis.

Most probiotics are sold as dietary supplements and do not undergo the testing and approval process to which drugs are subject. Manufacturers themselves are responsible for ensuring probiotics’ safety prior to their marketing. However, there’s no guarantee that the types of bacteria listed on labels are effective for the condition for which you may be taking them. Health benefits are strain-specific and not all strains are necessarily useful. Consult with your provider to discuss your probiotic options and determine those that may be beneficial to you. And, as with all supplements or medications, ensure that your provider is aware that you’re using them.

 

Author
Ithaca Primary Care

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