A baffling selection of probiotic foods and supplements crowd the shelves of health food stores these days. The findings of recent research confirm that foods and supplements with probiotics may provide benefits for many digestive problems. Probiotics may even help promote a healthy immune system.
Choosing the right product isn’t easy, however. Here are some tips for purchasing probiotics.
By Janis Graham
Stuffing? Check. Stiff drinks? Check. Stress? Check. 'Tis the season -- for
stomachaches. "The holidays create a perfect storm for stomach problems because
of all the eating, traveling, and partying," says Roger D. Mitty, M.D., chief
of gastroenterology at Caritas St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston. And
women are especially vulnerable, since some gastrointestinal ills occur up to
six times more often in women than in men. What's more, a recent survey found
Probiotics come in a variety of forms, from powders and capsules to foods such as yogurt, dairy drinks, infant formulas, cheese, and even snack bars that are supplemented with specific probiotic organisms. Any of these forms may be effective for some digestive problems as long as they contain the beneficial organisms in adequate numbers.
“Some people prefer to take probiotics in the form of food. Others prefer taking a capsule or powder,” says Stefano Guandalini, MD, a professor of gastroenterology at the University of Chicago School of Medicine. “It’s really a matter of personal preference.”
Probiotic supplements should be taken according to label directions, under the guidance of your doctor. Your doctor can advise you about which probiotics foods or supplements may help you and how often and how long you should use them.
Choose the Right Microbes for Your Needs
More important than the form of the probiotic product you use are the particular microbes that it contains. “Many different potentially useful probiotic organisms exist, including both bacteria and yeast,” says Martin Floch, MD, a leading gastroenterologist at Yale University, author of Probiotics: A Clinical Guide, and a consultant for the Dannon Company. “Their effects are very specific. Certain strains appear to be helpful only for certain conditions.”
The strains that appear to be most effective in treating infectious diarrhea, for instance, include Lactobacillus GG and Saccharomyces boulardii.
Probiotics Won’t Help All GI Problems
Convincing evidence shows that probiotics can speed recovery from infectious diarrhea. They may also ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. But probiotics may not offer much benefit for people with Crohns disease. There is benefit in preventing remission of pouchitis, but other areas are not conclusive.
For some conditions, even the experts disagree about whether or not probiotics help.
There’s Still a Lot of Guesswork
Keep in mind that doctors are still learning about the best practices for probiotic use. “Gastroenterologists and especially pediatric gastroenterologists have really begun to embrace the use of probiotics,” Guandalini tells WebMD. “But there is still a lot that we don’t know.”
Doctors have only a small handful of studies to go on for information about the best dosage to prescribe, for example. And very few studies have been done comparing one probiotic against another. As research progresses, doctors are likely to know more about when and how to prescribe probiotics.