In the last few years, there has been a rise in the number of probiotic supplements available on the shelves of supermarkets and health stores. Probiotics are promoted as having various health benefits and are available in different forms from capsules to fermented drinks. But what exactly are probiotics and is there enough evidence to support common health claims? The team at NPS MedicineWise share the latest.
What are probiotics and do I need them?
Probiotics are defined as live microbes that, when given in sufficient amounts, can have a number of health benefits. Our bodies naturally contain trillions of bacteria that are increasingly being recognised as important for health. Probiotics are similar to the ‘friendly’ bacteria that are naturally present in our bodies. Probiotics may restore the natural balance of bacteria in our gut and use similar mechanisms to our own friendly microbes to improve health. Evidence for the health benefits of probiotics has been emerging in recent years. While research is fairly limited, there is good evidence to support the use of probiotics for some conditions.
Antibiotic-associated diarrhoea occurs when the bacteria in the gut become unbalanced due to taking antibiotics. Probiotics have been shown to help prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhoea by restoring the natural balance of bacteria in the gut. In order to do their job properly, probiotics are best taken alongside antibiotics and should be continued for 10 days to 2 weeks after antibiotic therapy has stopped. As a general rule, wait at least 2 hours after each dose of antibiotics before taking the probiotic. Not everyone taking antibiotics will need probiotics. Those at risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhoea include the elderly and those who have been in hospital for long periods of time.
Infectious diarrhoea in children
Probiotics have also been shown to reduce the duration and severity of infectious diarrhoea in children. However, more research is needed to identify exactly which types of probiotics should be taken.
You may want to think twice before turning to probiotics to fight off your cold. Although some studies state that probiotics can prevent colds and reduce their duration and severity, studies in this area are of low quality and are based on small numbers of people.
Not all probiotics are the same
Probiotics are bacteria or yeast which come in a range of different strains. Although there may be good evidence to support the use of one type of probiotic for a specific condition, this doesn’t mean there is evidence to support its use in managing other conditions. Choose the probiotic strain that has the best evidence for the benefit you are seeking.
What should I look for in a probiotic?
Any health claim for a particular probiotic should be supported by good-quality evidence. If a health claim sounds too good to be true, you’re probably wasting your money. The product label should identify the strain of bacteria e.g., Bifidobacterium lactis BB-12 as well as the number of bacteria present in each serving or dose, given in colony-forming units (CFUs) e.g. 12 billion CFU. A product containing a larger number of bacteria is not necessarily better. More importantly, the dose should match studies that demonstrate benefit.
What about safety?
Probiotics have been used for many years and are safe for most people. If you suffer from an immune disorder or have a serious underlying illness, talk to your doctor before taking a probiotic. Also seek advice before giving probiotics to a baby. So, should you take probiotics? If you’re fit and healthy, probably not. However, there is convincing evidence that probiotics may help some conditions. Always talk to your doctor before considering a probiotic for a particular health condition – they are best placed to advise you on whether it’s worthwhile or not.