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Probing Probiotics' Health Effects

YogurtYou can find them in everyday products from yogurt to capsules, in the supermarket and online. You might have wondered are probiotics and prebiotics the magic fix for your digestive issues? Are advertisers’ claims of better health too good to be true? 

If you’re suffering from symptoms of irritable bowel disorder—bloating, constipation or diarrhea—chances are you might have considered trying these supplements as a means to relieve them. Before you make a purchase, make sure you have the facts. Robert Danoff, DO, an osteopathic family physician from Philadelphia, provides answers to your common questions and a quick guide to help get you started.

What are Probiotics and Prebiotics? 

You might have heard these terms in a television advertisement or radio promotion, but what are probiotics and prebiotics; and what’s the difference between the two? According to Dr. Danoff, probiotics are living microorganisms —yeast or bacteria —that have the ability to help the body’s digestive system. These “friendly” bacteria are similar to organisms that are naturally found in the body’s digestive tract. But are these microorganisms beneficial to your health?

“For the most part, they are a good additive for the body,” says Dr. Danoff. “They balance the levels of microorganisms in the intestines by driving down the levels of harmful bacteria, while also boosting the body’s immune system.”

Do prebiotics work in the same way? “Prebiotics actually work together with probiotics,” says Dr. Danoff. “Prebiotics, which are non-digestible carbohydrates, operate as food for probiotics and help support the growth of probiotic bacteria by providing a suitable environment in which the probiotics can flourish.”

When prebiotics and probiotics are combined, they form a symbiotic relationship such as the kind you see with fermented dairy products, like yogurt and kefir, which contain live bacteria and the fuel they need to thrive.

 Where can you find probiotics and prebiotics? According to Dr. Danoff, probiotics are found in foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, sour pickles and sourdough bread, while prebiotics are found in whole grains, bananas, onions, garlic, honey and artichokes. Probiotics and prebiotics are also added to some foods and are available as dietary supplements.

Should You Consider a Probiotic Regimen? 

Confused about adding probiotics and prebiotics to your diet? “Consult with your physician,” advises Dr. Danoff. “While probiotics and prebiotics don’t work for everyone, they might work for you.”

Even though research is still ongoing, there is encouraging evidence that shows probiotics may help:

  • Treat and ease the symptoms of diarrhea, especially following treatment with certain antibiotics.

  • Prevent and potentially decrease the occurrence of urinary tract infections, as well as vaginal yeast infections.

  • Treat as well as ease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

  • Speed the healing of certain intestinal infections.

  • Prevent or reduce the severity of colds and flu.

  • Ease the symptoms of eczema in children.

Selecting the right probiotic could be difficult as there are many differing effects and types. “While one might help treat an infection, another may have little to no effect,” explains Dr. Danoff. 

For those planning to start taking a probiotic supplement, Dr. Danoff recommends discussing the dosage requirements, restrictions and risks with your physician. Side effects are rare and most healthy adults can safely add foods that contain prebiotics and probiotics to their diets. However, those who are immunocompromised, severely debilitated, critically ill or post-operative should check with their physician before taking them to ensure the supplement is safe for them.

Proactive about Probiotics and Your Health

Research on probiotics is still ongoing and the health effects of these supplements are still new. As with all new treatments and routines, make sure you consult your physician, advises Dr. Danoff.

“Trends come and go, however, an open and collaborative relationship with your physician should be a mainstay in every person’s life,” he says. “Your physician can work with you to determine if a probiotic or an alternative treatment is the best solution for your health.”


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