The role of probiotics in digestive health was largely unknown by most people until the mid-90s when probiotic supplements started gaining popularity. Today, probiotics are showing up in specialty foods like gourmet chocolate, made-to-order smoothies and yogurt. They are naturally present in most fermented or cultured foods such as sauerkraut, miso, kefir, pickles and kombucha tea. Most health-conscious people know that probiotics are the good bacteria our bodies naturally produce to help break down food and keep the intestinal track in balance. This balance can be disrupted by illness or the use of prescription medications, especially antibiotics. When this happens, many people turn to supplements or probiotic foods for help. But as it turns out, what you don’t know about probiotics may actually be working against you.
The FDA classifies probiotics as a food, not a medication, and they are regulated like food. Makers of probiotic supplements or enriched foods don’t have to verify safety or provide supporting information for their product. However, this is no cause for great alarm as probiotics are considered safe for most people. Side effects, if any, are usually mild and include diarrhea, bloating, gas and a general upset stomach. These effects usually only last the first day or two after starting use. Though it’s rare, some people are allergic to probiotics. Stop taking them, and consult a medical professional if you experience anything other than mild digestive discomfort while using probiotics.
People who suffer with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Inflammatory Bowel Disease and other chronic digestive issues may improve their conditions with probiotics, but those with serious digestive disorders are cautioned to seek advice from a health professional before starting a probiotic regime. Experts are still learning which type of probiotic is best for which conditions. Many types of bacteria are labelled “probiotic.” Most can be classified as either Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium. Lactobacillus is the most commonly used probiotic. It’s found in yogurt and fermented foods and may help with diarrhea and the symptoms of lactose intolerance. Bifidobacterium occurs naturally in some dairy products and is often recommended for the treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Using too little, too much or the wrong combination of probiotics can worsen the symptoms of chronic disorders.
Probiotics may also help improve oral health, vaginal health, urinary problems, skin conditions and boost the immune system to fight off allergies and colds. But remember, manufacturers are not required to provide testing or scientific data to support any claims their product makes. The best approach may be to eat a balanced diet that includes fermented and cultured food and drink, and to seek the advice of a health professional before using probiotic supplements to treat a chronic disorder.