Companies selling foods like yogurt and kombucha use advertisements boasting about their products' live probiotics and cultures, but do these products have any real health benefits?
A recent report reviewed several previous studies on probiotics to see which ones improved gut health and for which health issues.
The report showed that specific probiotics were helpful because they relieved symptoms of health problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
According to the researchers, these findings could help doctors better understand the role of probiotics as an addition to typical treatment of digestive problems.
Pali Hungin, MD, of the Durham University School of Medicine, Pharmacy and Health in England, led this review to see if specific probiotics helped with digestion and gastrointestinal problems.
Gastrointestinal problems are any issues relating to the digestive tract. Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is one of the most common gastrointestinal issues. IBS is characterized by pain, bloating and discomfort in the bowels. People with IBS commonly have diarrhea and constipation.
Sometimes bowel problems are caused by a disruption in the natural bacteria in the stomach and intestines. For this reason, probiotics (live bacteria or fungi that benefit the digestive track) have become more popular in recent years.
Probiotics can come in the form of capsules, fermented drinks, yogurts and other edible concoctions. There are many types of probiotics, and not all of them are effective for each digestion problem.
This recently published report reviewed existing studies on probiotics to see which types of probiotics were effective and for which health problems.
The researchers looked at over 37 studies that examined the effects of probiotics on lower gastrointestinal symptoms and problems. Each of the studies had used a placebo, or fake probiotics, for comparison. The 37 studies looked at 32 different types of probiotics at varying dose levels.
Most of the studies addressed IBS or antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Antibiotics are frequently used for treatment of infections, but because they kill bacteria, they can cause digestion issues and loose stools.
After reviewing the studies, the researchers came up with statements that they believed the studies supported regarding probiotics. Then, they had a group of 10 doctors with an interest in gastrointestinal issues anonymously vote on the validity of the statements based on the evidence in the studies.
The doctors agreed with many of the statements on probiotics. The researchers and the group of doctors found that specific probiotics may help relieve IBS symptoms, especially abdominal pain. There was moderate agreement that specific probiotics helped relieve IBS patients of bloating and assisted with bringing about more consistent bowels.
Most of the doctors agreed that probiotics did not reduce gas or diarrhea in IBS patients.
However, for patients using specific probiotics to treat antibiotic-associated diarrhea, all of the doctors agreed that the studies showed prevention of or a reduction in the duration of diarrhea.
They also agreed that there were no significant adverse effects associated with using probiotics in addition to primary treatment for gut health issues.
The researchers concluded that many trials support the usefulness of specific strains of probiotics for various conditions, including IBS and antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
"Probiotics are strains of bacteria that occur naturally in our small intestines. They adhere to the lining of out gut. The most thoroughly studied species include Lactobacillus acidophilus, L. casei, L. sporogenes, Bifidobacterium bifidus and Saccharomyces boulardii. Often referred to as “beneficial bacteria,” probiotics prevent your gut from becoming colonized with “bad bacteria” or pathogens. Probiotics also make and release their own antimicrobial substances," Alexandra Reimann, ND, a primary care physician at Valhalla Wellness, told dailyRx News.
"They have been shown to be active against the microbes that cause cholera, Candida, and various other pathogens. This is how they enhance your gut’s immune system. Probiotics increase the activity of the brush border enzymes in the small intestine. In this way they aid digestion by allowing for better breakdown, absorption and assimilation of nutrients from food," explained Dr. Reimann.
"If you have diarrhea, food allergies, problems digesting food, IBS, IBD, Celiac disease, recurrent urinary tract infections or chronic gas and bloating you should consult your doctor about the benefits of supplementing probiotics. Probiotics should always be supplemented with antibiotic use," said Dr. Reimann.
This study was published in the October issue of Alimentary Pharmaceuticals and Therapeutics.
The research was funded by the European Society for Primary Care Gastroenterology. The authors did not disclose any conflicts of interest.