The Pros of Probiotics (And A Few Cons)

Are probiotics really good for you?

by Joan Raymond
Photograph: istock

Are probiotics (a) a hype (b) a marketing scam or© a genuine health boost whose time has come?

The answer is c. Although the marketing of these products may be light-years ahead of the science, evidence is mounting that, yes, swallowing these microbes may help treat certain gynecological and digestive conditions. Many strains of probiotic bacteria occur naturally in the gut, where they can boost the immune system function, help you digest carbohydrate-rich foods and improve your body’s ability to absorb nutrients, explains Cleveland gastroenterologist Jeffry A. Katz, MD. But you can easily destroy the good microflora when you don’t eat enough fiber, which feeds bacteria, or when you take antibiotics, which kill healthy bugs along with bad ones. Without enough good bacteria in your gut, you may develop diarrhea, or come down with vaginal infections or head colds that become more common as age weakens the immune system. In these situations, probiotics can help.

The good news: Consuming certain probiotics may bring back friendly bacteria. One of the best studied, Lactobacillus, seems especially beneficial for fighting stubborn gynecological infections, such as bacterial vaginosis (BV), which can occur when hormonal flux upsets the balance of vaginal microbes. In one study of women with BV, those who were given strains of lactobacilli along with antibiotics, experienced a nearly 90 percent cure rate, compared with 40 percent in an antibiotic-only group. Research shows that these probiotics may also help with urinary tract infections, and some studies suggest that eating yogurt containingLactobacillus acidophilus also prevents BV, as well as helps treat and prevent yeast infections.

Other probiotics can speed recovery from the rotavirus, improve regularity and boost the number of infection-fighting white blood cells, says microbiologist Gary B. Huffnagle, PhD, of the University of Michigan Health System.

Because healthy meals deliver other nutrients, many experts say eating food is the ideal way to take in probiotics, though supplements can be beneficial; see “Supplements That Are Winners,” below. (Look for the words live active cultures on labels, and read closely to see which strains of bacteria are present; Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium may be abbreviated as L. or B.) Microbiologist Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD, of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics, suggests trying Yakult dairy drink (containing Lactobacillus casei) or Activia yogurt (containing Bifidobacterium animalis) to keep your bowels on track. Products like DanActive (a fermented milk with L. casei), Kraft’s LiveActive cheese or Yoplait’s Yo-Plus yogurt (both containing B. lactis) may help boost immune function. Start slowly to prevent the temporary gas and bloating that a large dose can cause. And before you treat any problems on your own, talk to your doctor to rule out serious conditions.  

Supplements that are winners

You can up your probiotic level by taking supplements. But not all products deliver, says Tod Cooperman, MD, of Consumer in White Plains, New York. found that only eight out of 13 products tested contained the amount of bacteria generally found to elicit a healthful effect. Among the quality-approved supplements: Culturelle with Lactobacillus GG; All Natural; Nature Made Acidophilus; and Probiotic Gut Buddies.

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