Millions of friendly bacteria live in our intestines. They’re essential to digestion. Diarrhea can upset the normal balance of these useful organisms. Probiotics, which consist of helpful bacteria or yeasts, may help treat some kinds of diarrhea, studies suggest.
One of the most familiar forms of probiotics is yogurt. Bacteria added to milk create yogurt. The same bacteria may help keep your intestines healthy. But there are dozens of different bacteria and yeasts that may have health benefits.
Only certain strains appear to help diarrhea. And only certain types of diarrhea appear to respond to probiotics. So which ones may help? Before you stock the refrigerator and cupboards with probiotics, here is some information about the best ways to use them for different types of diarrhea.
Probiotics for Childhood Infectious Diarrhea
Some of the best evidence we have on the benefits of probiotics comes from studies of diarrhea in children, especially infectious diarrhea caused by rotavirus.
According to experts, probiotics can cut infectious diarrhea by half a day to about two days.
Not all probiotics are effective for childhood infectious diarrhea, however. Experts say the ones most likely to help are Lactobacilllus reuteri and Saccharomyces boulardii. Combinations of several probiotics may also help treat this type of diarrhea.
Probiotics for Antibiotic-Associated Diarrhea
Antibiotics kill the bad bacteria in your body that make you sick, but they also kill the good bacteria. This can disrupt the normal balance in the intestines, leading to diarrhea. Diarrhea is a common side effect in 10% to 30% of people taking antibiotics.
Recent studies of both children and adults have shown that probiotics taken before and during antibiotics can lower the risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Many different probiotics have been studied, and Saccharomyces boulardii and Lactobacillus GG seem to be the most effective.
Probiotics May Help Prevent Travelers’ Diarrhea
Diarrhea caused by contaminated food or water is a frequent problem for travelers. Up to 10% of people who get diarrhea while traveling end up developing persistent diarrhea.
Probiotics may help prevent travelers’ diarrhea. A 2007 report concluded that probiotics lowered the risk of getting travelers’ diarrhea. The strongest evidence pointed to benefits from S. boulardii, Lactobacillus acidophilus, and Bifidobacteria bifidum.
Can Probiotics Help Diarrhea Caused by C. difficile?
Infection with C. difficile causes severe and sometimes life-threatening diarrhea and colitis. Probiotics may help prevent C. difficile infection. And there’s some evidence that probiotics may help prevent repeat infections of C. difficile. That’s important, since repeat infections become difficult to control.
The organisms that have been studied the most include Saccharomyces boulardii and Lactobacillus GG. In one large study, patients with recurrent diarrhea were given either a probiotic or a placebo. Only 9 out of 26 people in the probiotics group had a further recurrence. In the placebo group, 22 out of 34 had recurrent diarrhea.
Probiotics for Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Based on a 2011 report, probiotics may help treat ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). There are some studies suggesting probiotics may also help Crohn's disease, the other form of IBD, but the evidence is not strong.
Where to Find Probiotics
Most health food stores now stock dozens of brands of probiotic foods and supplements, like yogurts or dairy drinks, capsules, powders, and liquids.
When choosing a probiotic, look for one that contains a specific organism that has been tested and found effective. Experts say it’s wise to look for products that say that they remain viable “through end of shelf life” rather than “at time of manufacture.”