by: Debra Brown RD, LD, CDE
Stomach problems are one of the most common complaints among Americans; they suffer from various digestive disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s, gastritis, digestive irregularity, colitis, and chronic constipation. They try and relieve the symptoms by taking over the counter medicines, such as antacids, and laxatives, but these do not address the underlying cause.
The health of the large intestine is key to overall body health. It is the body’s primary site for water absorption and supports the body’s immune system by acting as a barrier between invading materials. The integrity of the intestinal barrier can change due to stress, starvation (even short term), lack of proper nutrition, compromised immune system or as the result of serious health situations such as Crohn’s disease. With the normal human digestive tract containing about 400 types of probiotic bacteria that reduce the growth of harmful bacteria and promote a healthy digestive system, any upset to this system could cause digestive problems. (1)
Probiotics are microorganisms that supplement the guts natural bacteria helping to maintain the natural balance of organisms (microflora) in the intestines. Why they seem to work is still unknown however studies suggest that supplements with a predominance of bifodobacterium can help alleviate IBS symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating and bowel movement irregularity. Often, the bacteria come from two groups, Lactobacillus or bifodobacterium; however there are different species and strains. Here are some of the most popular. (2)
- Lactobacillus acidophilus - for the relief of occasional diarrhea symptoms.
- Bifidobacterium longum - for improvement in bowel regularity.
- Bifidobacterium lactis - for improved immune function and a reduction of H. pylori, the bacteria thought to be responsible for digestive ulcers.
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus & Bifidobacterium longum - for a reduction in the diarrhea symptoms known as "traveler's diarrhea."
- Lactobacillus gasseri - for the relief of occasional diarrhea symptoms.
- Bifidobacterium infantis - for the relief of bowel irregularity and the abdominal pain associated with bloating and gas. (3)
Probiotics are available in the form of dietary supplements and foods. Examples of foods containing probiotics are yogurt, fermented and unfermented milk, miso, tempeh, soy beverages, and some juices. In probiotic foods and supplements, the bacteria may have been present originally or added during preparation.
The best case for probiotic therapy has been reported in the treatment of diarrhea. Controlled trials have shown that Lactobacillus GG can shorten the course of infectious diarrhea in infants and children (but not adults). (4) Many people use probiotics to prevent diarrhea, gas, and cramping caused by antibiotics. Antibiotics kill "good" (beneficial) bacteria along with the bacteria that cause illness. Some studies suggest that probiotics reduce antibiotic-associated diarrhea by 60%, when compared with a placebo. (5) Probiotic benefits vary depending on the bacteria in question. If you're looking for a probiotic digestive supplement, be sure to choose one that does what you have in mind. If you're interested in addressing a specific health area, then a single species of bacteria, or even a specific strain, would be needed for that particular health issue.
More research is emerging on the potential health benefits of probiotic strains as a health supplement. However, still more research needs to be conducted to prove the benefit of probiotics conclusively. As with any dietary supplement be aware that probiotic supplements are regulated as foods, not drugs. So tell your doctor about everything you are taking. If you're looking for overall digestive health benefits, including improved bowel regularity and relief from bloating and gas give probiotics a try they just might help.