Ask the Doctor About Probiotics

What are probiotics? 

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that help maintain the natural balance of organisms (microflora) in your intestines. The largest group of probiotic bacteria in the intestine is lactic acid bacteria, of which Lactobacillus acidophilus is also found in yogurt with live cultures and probiotic supplements.

Although we tend to think of bacteria as harmful “germs,” many bacteria, like those found in probiotics, actually help the body function properly.

How are they helpful?

The body does not need the addition of probiotics to be healthy. However, food and supplements that contain probiotics assist the job of the “good” bacteria already present in your lower intestine. Probiotics may help by: 

  • decreasing the number of “bad” bacteria in your gut that can cause infections or inflammation.
  • replacing the body’s “good” bacteria that have been lost when taking certain medications, such as antibiotics. 
  • restoring the body’s “good” versus “bad” bacterial balance, which then helps to keep your body functioning properly. 

When are probiotics prescribed?

Probiotics are recommended for a variety of gastrointestinal conditions such as diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease (e.g., ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease). In addition, probiotics are sometimes prescribed for patients with generalized abdominal pain, gas, bloating, excessive flatulence, diarrhea and constipation.

What should I do if I am interested in taking probiotics?

As with any supplement, consult your primary doctor or gastroenterologist before starting a probiotic. There are many different types of probiotics available, and some are better studied and more effective than others.

Rahul S. Dhillon, MD, is board-certified in gastroenterology and internal medicine and on-staff at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. He earned his medical degree from St. Louis University School of Medicine, completed his internship and residency at Washington University School of Medicine, and did a gastroenterology fellowship at University of California-Irvine.

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