Monika Pis, PhD, CPNP
In today’s medically savvy society, parents often seek "natural" remedies for health ailments, or to help their children feel better. They also reach for supplements in an attempt to improve health and seek "super foods" to promote wellness.
"Super foods," known as functional foods, describe foods or nutrients that promote health beyond providing nutrition. Probiotics are considered to be a functional food, and in the recent years they have received increased attention from the scientific and general communities.
The World Health Organization defines probiotics as live organisms, usually bacteria, that are used to change or re-establish the intestinal or gut flora and improve our health. In the early 20th century, a Russian scientist and Nobel laureate Eli Metchnikoff, PhD proposed that ingestion of certain bacteria, like those that come from fermented milk, had a beneficial impact on health. Today we have scientific evidence that certain bacteria, probiotics, play a beneficial role in certain diseases in adults and children. For example, there is compelling evidence that probiotics are effective in the treatment of viral and antibiotic induced diarrhea.
Every year thousands of children become ill with gastroenteritis, or "the stomach flu." They experience a rapid onset of watery diarrhea with vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain, and fever. Research indicates that in the United States diarrhea is associated with 150,000 to 170,000 hospitalizations annually. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, scientists estimate that 1 out of 23-27 children will be hospitalized with diarrhea by age 5.
Recent scientific findings indicate that probiotics are extremely effective in preventing acute diarrhea in children. They are also effective when administered during the early stages of viral diarrhea.
DIARRHEA DUE TO ANTIBIOTIC TREATMENT
Antibiotic treatments often lead to the disruption of intestinal flora and cause diarrhea. Studies show that the administration of probiotics to children taking antibiotics reduces the risk of diarrhea.
So far, the research on probiotic use in the treatment of irritable bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or eczema shows no benefit of probiotic use to prevent or alleviate symptoms.
Most probiotics have been used in foods like yogurt and kefir and have a long-standing history of safety. Therefore, they are considered safe for use by healthy people. Individuals with compromised immune systems, such as those with chronic diseases or undergoing chemotherapy, should not take probiotics, as there have been reports of probiotic-associated sepsis and endocarditis.
One thing to remember is that probiotics are not regulated by the FDA, thus over-the-counter products may vary widely in quality. Infant formula containing B. lactis is the only exception. The FDA considers it safe to use in infants.
The bottom line is that probiotics may be beneficial for certain diseases, but may prove harmful for certain individuals. Therefore, before considering a probiotic supplement, talk to your health care provider.