Teach Me

What About Probiotics?

Recently, I had the joy of having a root canal. I would like to say it was my first root canal, but no, I’ve been down that road a couple of other times. What made this experience different, however, was that my dental specialist recommended I take a daily probiotic while completing my regimen of post-dental-procedure antibiotics.

He explained the probiotics might help decrease the possibility of discomfort to my digestive system due to the antibiotics. Hmmm…interesting. I’d had prior root canals and I’ve been on antibiotics over the course of my life, but this was new information. I realized that even though I had heard mention of probiotics many times in the media, I knew very little about them.

Primarily, what exactly are probiotics?

“Probiotics are beneficial microorganisms, usually thought of as ‘good bacteria,’ sometimes yeast,” explains Heidi Thompson, MD,  a family medicine physician with Banner Medical Group in Greeley, CO. “Some of the common probiotics are Lactobacillus, a strain of bacteria which is cultured from milk products, and Saccharomyces, which is a particular strain of yeast. However, there are many probiotics other than these two.”

Indeed. According to WebMD, some 400 kinds of probiotic bacteria reside in a normal human digestive tract. That’s a lot, and they’re working hard to reduce the growth of bad bacteria and keep our digestive tracts healthy.

So, if we already have lots of probiotic bacteria inside of us working hard to keep us healthy, why take more? It may be to help when our digestive tracts aren’t so healthy, or we’re experiencing an imbalance of good versus harmful bacteria in our system.

“The main goal of probiotics has been to help with gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea caused by antibiotic use, infectious diarrhea, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis,” Dr. Thompson says. But she cautions that probiotic treatment studies are not always in agreement as to overall effectiveness. “Part of the problem,” she explains, “comes from the fact that many of the studies use different probiotics in different concentrations with different end points, which makes them difficult to compare. Currently, there is very little true consensus about probiotics, especially as more data is coming out.”

This is true even for situations like mine with the antibiotics. “Sometimes doctors will recommend patients take probiotics when they start taking an antibiotic to decrease the chance of getting antibiotic-associated diarrhea,” according to Dr. Thompson. “This was one of the first reasons probiotics were recommended, as there were studies to indicate they were helpful in decreasing the risk. There have been additional studies, however, that have shown that probiotics did not make a significant difference.”

Can taking probiotics either in food or supplements hurt us? Dr. Thompson says that overall, probiotics are considered safe, since most studies have found them to be helpful or no worse than placebo. Side effects of probiotics, although not common, may include increased gas, bloating and upset stomach.

Still, if you are immune-suppressed due to disease (such as AIDS) or medications (such as prednisone), if you have lactose allergies, or if you have known gastrointestinal problems, you should not take probiotics without first consulting your health care provider, Dr. Thompson explains.

While there is an abundance of probiotic products and information available to health care consumers, many questions still remain. That’s why it’s so important to talk with your health care provider about this topic or any other health-related issue that may be confusing. “Unfortunately, right now there is a lot of information out there about probiotics,” Dr. Thompson says. “But it’s not necessarily all good information. Not much of it agrees, even in medical literature. I’ve seen most providers use it for, and see their patients get some benefit with, infectious diarrhea, antibiotic-related diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome. But with so many different forms and concentrations of probiotics, the jury is still definitely out. Hopefully, we’ll get more information.”

Me? I took a probiotic each day during my antibiotic regimen and felt no ill effects from the medicine. Whether the probiotic was the reason, I don’t know. Hopefully, future studies will help clarify the overall effectiveness of probiotics. In the meantime, I know the most important thing I can do if I have questions or concerns about a possible treatment option is talk frankly with my physician and get all the information I can to make informed health decisions. It’s the best way I know to take charge of my own health and well-being.


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