Question: What do probiotics do, and are they actually helpful?
Matthew Lute, D.O.: There’s been a lot of talk about probiotics lately due to their increase in popularity. Probiotics are microorganisms that you can swallow (typically in pill form) with the goal of supplementing the normal gastrointestinal flora (the community of microorganisms that live in the digestive tracts of humans and animals to aid in digestion), including bacteria and yeast.
The first documented study of probiotics was in 1899 and concluded that episodes of diarrhea occurred less frequent in breastfed infants, possibly due to a “probiotic” naturally transferred via breast milk.
Since then, much has changed. Current literature recommendations vary regarding benefits of probiotics, including when, what, and how they should be used. As a result, there are more than 100 different commercially available formulations, that vary in expense, refrigeration, bacterial composition, and ratios of organisms.
Since these products are considered supplements, there is no direct FDA oversight regarding their contents as there is with prescription medications.
The microbiome of the gastrointestinal tract is very complex and, although we know more about it then we did in 1899, there is still more to learn. In specific situations, probiotics have a role in the management of GI conditions, and some patients notice significant improvement in their gastrointestinal symptoms.
There has been research that supports treating some conditions, specifically irritable bowel syndrome and antibiotic associated diarrhea. Other diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease and clostridium difficile associated diarrhea, do not have as significantly supportive data.
Although some probiotics can be naturally obtained from yogurt, juices, and soy products, the overall bacterial counts in capsule supplements are significantly greater. Caution should be used with these supplements, specifically when being used by patients who are extremely ill, elderly, infant, or pregnant. In those situations, patients should consult with their physicians before starting these supplements.
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Dealing with a gut issue that isn’t going away? Talk with your primary care provider or call Kootenai Clinic Gastroenterology at (208) 625-4595.
Story courtesy of Kootenai Health.