A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Probiotics have digestive benefits, few risks

Illustration: Probiotics traveling through the intestines - should I take a probiotic?Probiotic supplements have gained popularity as a way to improve digestion and overall health.

Some people swear by them, taking them daily.

“How probiotics work isn’t entirely understood,” said Jenell Bushong, a Marshfield Clinic gastroenterology nurse practitioner. However, there is evidence they improve symptoms of gastrointestinal illnesses and help maintain a healthy balance of beneficial gut bacteria even if you aren’t sick.

Healthy people don’t need to take probiotic supplements daily, but doing so probably is safe since they have few reported side effects.

What do probiotics do?

Probiotics are “good” bacteria found naturally in the body, in yogurt and dietary supplements.

They have three main digestive health benefits:

  1. Add billions of good bacteria to the gut to restore balance between good and bad bacteria. This helps the digestive system work like it should.
  2. Strengthen the digestive tract’s lining, which prevents bacteria from sticking to the gut.
  3. Provide a barrier to shield the body from bad bacteria.

Probiotics for medical conditions

Research-based evidence shows probiotics help prevent pouchitis. Pouchitis is swelling of a pouch that is surgically created when the large intestine and rectum are removed. It usually affects people who have ulcerative colitis.

More research is needed to prove probiotics help other digestive problems.

“Despite this, probiotics are widely recommended because they are well-tolerated and pose little risk,” Bushong said.

They are recommended to improve symptoms of gastrointestinal illnesses including:

  • Infectious diarrhea
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome

They also prevent diarrhea sometimes caused by antibiotics, which kill both bad bacteria and good bacteria that help with digestion.

Daily probiotics are safe

The decision to take a daily probiotic is up to you. Consider this: They may improve your digestive health even if you don’t have problems and there are few reported side effects.

“In general, they’re thought to be safe,” Bushong said.

Exercise, hydration, balanced diet and quitting smoking also will improve digestive health.

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