I was miserable. Not only did I have an infection that just wouldn’t quit, but the second round of antibiotics I was taking was doing a number on my digestive system. Facing daily bouts of diarrhea, I started taking a probiotic supplement in hopes of some relief. Within a couple of days, the diarrhea cleared up (and eventually, so did the infection).
I can’t say for sure that the probiotics eased my digestive woes, but I now take them regularly, especially when traveling, to ward off the GI discomfort that typically plagues me. But even though my own experience made me a believer, I also know that probiotics aren’t yet considered a proven therapy. And even though a lot of research has been done on probiotics, they’re still not fully understood.
Probiotic supplements contain live, healthy bacteria. The hope is that when you ingest these bacteria through foods or supplements, they populate the gut, crowding out unhealthy bacteria that can make you sick. Taking them during antibiotic therapy can replace the good bacteria wiped out by the meds. It’s also believed that maintaining a healthy balance of microbes in your gut may help boost the immune system overall.
Probiotics have been studied as a possible treatment for diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and even eczema and tooth decay. The most evidence points to their use for easing diarrhea (triggered by infections and antibiotics) and the symptoms of IBS.
Trouble is, there are many different strains of healthy bacteria, and not all of them are effective or well researched. And probiotic supplements, like all dietary supplements, aren’t well regulated—so you don’t know for sure if you’re getting your money’s worth (and they can be pricey).
So what should you do? The National Institutes of Health warns not to use probiotics instead of proven therapies for health conditions–and to always consult your doctor before taking them if you have any health problems. Otherwise, there’s likely no harm in trying. For most healthy people, probiotics are safe and have few (if any) side effects.
When shopping, look for a product that lists a specific strain and the number of organisms. The most common are Lactobacillus and the Bifidobacterium. Store them in a cool, dark place (such as a cupboard) unless directions advise refrigeration. Be vigilant about using them before the expiration date, as the number of bacteria plummet over time.
If you don’t want to take supplements but want the benefits, start eating more probiotic-containing foods, like yogurt with “live and active cultures”, miso soup, sauerkraut, sour pickles (packed in salt water brine, not vinegar), and kefir (a fermented dairy drink). They pack beneficial bacteria too–plus some nutrition for your day.