Can you ingest bacteria to offset the harm caused by antibiotics, or to prevent infection and diarrhea?
That’s the promise—and puzzle—of probiotics, the supplements and foods that contain “beneficial”
bacteria, including yogurt, buttermilk, kimchi, and miso.
Proponents of the popular health trend—including companies that sell probiotics in food and dietary
supplements—say they can help improve your immune and digestion systems, boost overall health, and
treat or prevent irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and Crohn's disease. But while probiotics are increasingly being sold and used, much more research is needed to evaluate the potential benefits of using specific strains to treat ailments. And before you try probiotics, it’s wise to visit Dr. Keith Lamy, at Austin family practice medicine clinic, to see if it makes sense for you to use them.
Your body contains a mix of trillions of bacteria that live on your skin, gut, lungs, and everywhere else. Most of these bacteria are helpful, not harmful. They aid your digestion and ability to utilize food energy, protect against infection, and improve immune function.
A small number of bacteria can cause harm, but in some cases even these microbes can be offset by
beneficial bacteria. So does it make sense to eat yogurt and other probiotic foods to try to boost the good bacteria in your body?
One of the first to propose eating fermented dairy products was Russian biologist Elie Metchnikoff. In
the early 1900s, he urged people to eat yogurt as a way to cultivate beneficial bacteria in the intestines. He linked the longevity of Bulgarians to their eating of fermented dairy products and claimed that eating such foods could help people live longer and healthier.
While there is some evidence that probiotics can be helpful for some intestinal conditions, more
research is needed to evaluate many of the proponents’ claims. It may be a good idea to take probiotics to treat diarrhea, especially when it is caused by antibiotics. When you take antibiotics to wipe out harmful bacteria you also may destroy beneficial bacteria that keep your intestinal tract healthy, resulting in diarrhea or gas. Some research has found that probiotics can reduce the risk of diarrhea, or shorten how long you have it.
You should start taking probiotic supplements as soon as you begin a course of antibiotics. Make sure
the strains in the supplements will work for the condition you are trying to treat. Buy brands that
contain Lactobacillus GG, for example, and take them with meals and according to the dosage. You
can stop taking the supplements a few days after you finish taking the antibiotics. Of course, the best advice is to limit your use of antibiotics as much as possible to avoid killing off the healthy bacteria you need to maintain your health.
At least 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed in the United States are unnecessary, putting patients at risk for sometimes deadly diarrhea and allergic reactions, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And the more antibiotics are used, the greater the risk of antibiotic resistance, which the CDC has called an urgent threat to public health.
It may also be worth taking probiotics to help treat or prevent irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s
disease and ulcerative colitis. Although probiotics may not work for everyone, supplements that contain Bifidobacterium infantis may help reduce irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, such as gas, bloating, and irregular bowel movements. Taking probiotics for ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease may help some cases, but there is little research that shows they are beneficial.
More studies are also needed to determine whether probiotics may help improve your immune
response, treat yeast or urinary tract infections, ease eczema, or combat asthma or allergies.
For most healthy people, probiotics are considered safe to use, with few or no side effects. But if you
are pregnant, your immune system is compromised, or you are unhealthy in other ways, you should consult a doctor to make sure you can use them.
If you’re considering probiotics, please do consider a visit with Dr. Lamy to get his guidance and advice on using them.