Probiotics, do you need them?

Stomach issues are a common malady, and even today, still not fully understood.  An episode of stomach upset could have one cause or several causes. Often, you may be able to deduce a cause – perhaps what you ate?  Or symptoms go away after a bowel movement. When stomach upset is infrequent and lasts only a short time, we tend to shrug it off.


However, if stomach upset is frequent or very painful, you should seek medical attention to determine the cause.  Your doctor may be able to determine the cause, or in cases where it is determined to be potentially serious, may refer you to a gastroenterologist for further review.  In some cases, everything may look normal, but the cause is not known.


We sometimes need to go back to old practices to find solutions.  In many cultures, diets have been formed over generations to prevent stomach upset, improve digestion and provide health benefits.  Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kefir, and tempeh contain probiotics. Buttermilk and brewer’s yeast also contain probiotic bacteria.  Probiotic supplements you can buy at the pharmacy are meant to introduce microorganisms into your gut which will provide a health benefit to you.


So, what is the hype over “probiotics”?  Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that we normally would have in our gut.  We need a variety of bacteria to help us digest foods, prevent build up of toxins in the gut, and help to keep us regular.  A healthy gut has a flora of bacteria, and we know that in some situations of bad gut health, the balance of diverse bacteria may change.  


Medications, such as antibiotics, may kill more than the bacteria we want to get rid of, tipping the balance of good gut flora.  In situations like this, a probiotic may help, and starting them as you are taking medication may reduce symptoms of diarrhea or stomach upset.  Your Pharmachoice pharmacist will counsel on the side effects of your medications. If stomach upset is a side effect, discuss ways to address it.  Recommendations from the pharmacist may involve timing of meals, food choices, or recommend a probiotic. Probiotics may also be recommended when there is stomach upset, diarrhea, flatulence, or irregularity.


Although the premise for using probiotics appears sound, there have not been sufficient studies to determine exactly which strains of bacteria should be used for the various conditions of stomach upset.  Studies on inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), have provided some promising results, with limited strains of bacteria. So what do we know? Gut flora is very important, and keeping your gut healthy requires a diversity of good bacteria.  You can achieve this with a good diet, and sometimes supplementing with a probiotic may be helpful.

Deborah Ellis
Truro. NS