DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I keep hearing about all of the health benefits of probiotics. Are there any negative side effects? Do I need to talk to my doctor before I take them?
ANSWER: Some research has shown that taking probiotics may have health benefits. They appear to be especially useful in promoting digestive health. In healthy adults, side effects from probiotics are rare. Before you start taking probiotics, however, it is a good idea to discuss it with your doctor.
Probiotics contain strains of living bacteria that are similar to the healthy bacteria normally found in your digestive system. The purpose of taking probiotics is to increase the levels of those healthy bacteria.
You can get probiotics from your diet. For example, yogurt, some types of soft cheese such as Gouda, miso soup, sourdough bread and acidophilus milk all contain probiotics. Probiotics also are available in pill form as an over-the-counter dietary supplement.
Although more research is needed, there is evidence that probiotics may be useful in treating some disorders of the digestive tract. In particular, probiotics appear to be helpful in treating diarrhea, especially following treatment with certain antibiotics; treating irritable bowel syndrome; and speeding treatment of some intestinal infections.
Probiotics also may be effective in preventing and treating the skin condition eczema in children. Some research suggests probiotics can help reduce the recurrence of bladder cancer, as well.
One research study of children in daycare settings found that those who regularly took a probiotic supplement developed fewer colds and were less likely to get the flu than those who did not. Another study of probiotics followed a group of people who worked night shifts — a population that has been shown to be more susceptible to viral illnesses. Its findings were similar to those of the daycare study: people who took probiotics got sick less often than those who did not.
It is important to note, though, that not all probiotics are the same. The specific type of probiotic used to treat irritable bowel syndrome, for example, may not be the one that can help fight eczema. When you go to buy a probiotic supplement, you will likely find a wide variety of options available. Identifying the differences between the products can be confusing, and it is often hard to know which one is right for you.
That’s why talking with your doctor before you start taking a probiotic can be helpful. The two of you can discuss whether taking a probiotic supplement might be useful for you in the first place. Then, if it is, your doctor can help you determine what type of probiotic will be best for your situation.
Side effects from probiotics are uncommon. Most healthy adults can safely add probiotics to their diet without any problems. Before you start taking a probiotics supplement, however, you should review with your doctor any other medications or supplements you are taking and discuss any additional health concerns you may have. In some people who have immune system problems or intestinal damage, taking probiotics may not be recommended.
Because the use of probiotics is relatively new, it is possible some doctors may not be familiar enough with them to guide you through the process of choosing the right probiotic. In that case, consider talking with your pharmacist about it instead. — Brent Bauer, M.D., General Internal Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.