How Do Probiotics Aid Digestion and Help Prevent Colon Issues?

Medically reviewed by: Gary H. Hoffman, MD

You’ve probably seen dozens of options for probiotic-enriched foods, other probiotic sources and probiotic supplements in your local supermarket. But do you know what probiotics can and cannot do? While probiotics are not a one-size-fits all solution or even a stand-alone treatment for gastrointestinal ailments, they do aid digestion and can help prevent some colon and GI issues.

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What is the Role of Good Gastrointestinal Bacteria?

We all have bacteria, yeast and other microorganisms living on our skin and in our bodies. These are “good” microbes. Without them, our bodies would not function properly. To break down food, remain regular and prevent constipation, your gut needs the right bacteria.

When you eat a poor diet, take antibiotics or are in certain environmental conditions, the good bacteria in your gut can die. This creates an imbalance in your system, leaving you with diarrhea or constipation, irregularity and other gastrointestinal annoyances. Of course, these annoyances can also become more serious, leading to dehydration or serious health concerns if the wrong bacteria become prominent in the gut.

It is advised that patients be careful with the things they try at home for weight loss or colon health. Colon cleanses, for example, are a popular weight loss “trick.” However, they do not lead to any actual fat loss and they disrupt your balance of good bacteria.

It is also important to be aware of how often you take antibiotics, what for and what kind you are prescribed. If your general practitioner prescribes an antibiotic, ask if it is strictly necessary.Because they cannot target only the bad bacteria causing your infection, you lose the good bacteria in your gut, as well. This is why many people experience diarrhea after taking a round of antibiotics.

Can Probiotics Help Prevent or Treat My Gastrointestinal Issues?

Consuming probiotics on a regular basis can ensure the body remains in balance, preventing diarrhea and constipation by regulating gastrointestinal motility. This, in turn, eases a number of gastrointestinal complaints.

Adding a probiotic food or supplement when taking antibiotics may prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Some people also have luck limiting the damage done by an infectious gastrointestinal bug by eating probiotic-rich foods.

Your physician must look at your history and other related concerns before recommending yogurt or kefir to those with Clostridium difficile, irritable bowel syndrome, or inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, or indeterminate colitis.

Should I Add Probiotics to My Regular Diet if I’m Healthy?

For the majority of people, adding probiotics to your diet or using a supplement is safe. However, it is important to remember that these supplements are not tested and regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) like medications are. For this reason, you need to read the labels carefully and make a wise choice when deciding how to consume your probiotics. Luckily, there are plenty to choose from. Opt for a yogurt without added sugar or artificial sweeteners.

Caution needs to be taken by everyone who chooses to take these supplements, but this is especially true for children, pregnant women, elderly people, and people with compromised immune systems.

While researchers have shown that probiotics are effective at preventing and treating some types of colon issues, they have not yet narrowed down which type works for which illness. For that reason, I recommend buying a product with several strains of probiotics. Two of the most popular are bifidobacteria and lactobacillus.

Is it Safe to Try to Address My Concern at Home with Probiotics Instead of Calling the Doctor?

Adding yogurt to your diet or trying out a therapeutic trial of probiotic supplements has relatively few risks for most people. If you are experiencing acute onset of an infectious stomach bug, have a minor case of irregularity, or worry about antibiotic-associated diarrhea but are otherwise healthy, there is probably no harm in trying to eat a serving of yogurt every day, drinking a probiotic smoothie or choosing a high-quality probiotic supplement.

However, if you suffer from other colon issues or you have a compromised immune system, it is a good idea to talk it over with your doctor before you add probiotics to your usual healthcare regime.

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