Risks and Benefits of Probiotics

Probiotics are a type of "good" bacteria found in some foods and supplements. We usually think of bacteria as something that can cause diseases or other problems. But probiotics can help keep your gut healthy.

Your body doesn't need probiotics. You already have healthy bacteria in your gut. But it usually doesn't hurt to take them, and adding them to your diet might help.

How Probiotics Are Good for You

They might lower the number of "bad" bacteria in your gut that can cause illness or inflammation. They can also replace those problem germs with good or helpful bacteria.

Researchers are studying when and how probiotics might best help. There's more research for some illnesses than others. They might help people with:

  • Diarrhea , especially when it's linked to specific antibiotics. Probiotics also might help with infectious diarrhea, especially in children.
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Some probiotics might keep ulcerative colitis in remission (a state of little to no disease activity) and prevent Crohn's disease from relapsing and getting worse.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome . Probiotics can sometimes help ease symptoms, including stomach pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation.

Probiotics also are being studied for many other conditions. There isn’t as much research yet, but some people say that probiotics have helped them with:

How Probiotics Might Be Bad for You

Because these good bacteria already exist in the body, they’re considered safe for most people. But there are some things to consider.

They can trigger an allergic reaction. They might cause mild stomach problems, especially the first few days you start taking them. You might have stomach upset, gas, diarrhea, or bloating. Those symptoms usually go away after your body gets used to them.

If you have an immune system problem or another serious health condition, you may have a greater chance of issues. Some reports have linked probiotics to serious infections and other side effects. The people most likely to have trouble are those with immune system problems, people who've had surgery, and others who are critically ill. Don't take probiotics if you have any of those issues.

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Always talk to your pediatrician before giving probiotic supplements to your child. If you're pregnant or nursing, you should also talk to your doctor before you try one.

Most probiotics in the U.S. are sold as dietary supplements. That means the companies that make them don't have to test their products and show that they work or that they are safe. More research is needed to confirm that probiotics are safe and effective.

Ask your doctor which probiotics are the right ones for you. Be sure to stop taking them if you have any problems.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on January 22, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: "Probiotics: In Depth."

Cleveland Clinic: "Probiotics."

University of Florida IFAS Extension: "Commonly Asked Questions about Probiotics and the Potential Benefits for Your Health."

Harvard Health Publications: "Health benefits of taking probiotics."

Mayo Clinic: "Do I need to include probiotics and prebiotics in my diet?"

Arthritis Foundation: "The Promise of Probiotics for Arthritis."

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