Probiotic consumption and the potential risks

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There is so much evidence on the benefits of taking probiotics both in clinical studies and in real world results. But can there also be risks?

The less desirable effects of using probiotics will include bloating, gas, cramping, nausea, and diarrhea. This is something I would typically expect when there is a shift in the gut flora away from an overbalance of bacteria or yeast.

This shifting, or resetting, of the gut microbiome may just well be an important step in getting back to a healthy digestive state. While this is the value of taking a probiotic, it can also mean discomfort as your intestines, and the little organisms that cohabitate with us, settle into a more cooperative relationship.

And yet there is a possibility that you could be sensitive, even allergic, to a particular strain. Or more likely, your body might not like one of the extra ingredients added to a consumer grade probiotic formula.

I’ve seen some formulas that start with a Bulgarian yogurt concentrate and add in potato starch, rice hull, and even fiber. All while claiming they are free from binders, fillers and artificial ingredients. It’s a good idea to read the full label on the back of the box and watch out for these kind of additives.

Clinical grade probiotics have become well recognized at offering heath benefits and for addressing acute concerns. Studies are showing positive results for treating urinary tract and yeast infections, supporting our overall immune system, and improving symptoms of lactose intolerance.

While I sometimes see unfavorable opinions in regards to probiotics, it is typically agreed that some strains effectively reduce the incidence and duration of rotavirus diarrhea in infants, antibiotic-associated diarrhea is adults, and infections from Clostridium difficile. Though I think it fair that we should not transfer the evidence of benefits from one strain onto another.

It is estimated that our guts contain as much as 100 trillion bacteria throughout the digestive system. By comparison, the human body contains somewhere between 10 to 37.5 billion cells. That really challenges my ideas of who I am and what I’m made of.

These bacteria, as a community, crowd out destructive microbial invaders, they help break down food into forms that we can absorb, and they are responsible for producing some critical vitamins such a K and B12.

There are many forms in which we find beneficial probiotics. Fermented foods like yogurt and sauerkraut, drinks like kefir and kambucha, and even soft cheeses and sourdough bread, each contain beneficial bacteria. Unfortunately, some forms are high in sugar and flour, which feeds detrimental bacteria and yeast.

When protein containing foods age or are fermented, a byproduct is produced called amines. One of these substances, called histamine, can potentially build up to high levels in our body and increase our sensitivities to other foods. Headaches after eating may be a sign of histamine intolerance.

Though it has been very challenging for me to find reasonable indication that the commercially available foods offer a level of potency compared to taking a clinical grade probiotic. It’s more likely you’ll achieve greater viability by making your own probiotic rich foods at home.

But don’t assume consuming probiotics is always safe. Some individuals with compromised immune systems, who have venous catheters, or artificial heart valves appear to be at a greater risk of bacterial infection after taking a probiotic.

Having a bacteria or yeast get into the blood stream is never a good idea. There are other strains that are not native to our digestive system and these could over populate even health individuals and cause more problems.

Consuming a probiotic is just a small addition to the trillions of bacteria in our gut, but there is growing evidence that they can contribute to beneficial changes in the diversity of our intestinal flora.

A key consideration to getting the most benefit out of a probiotic is to make sure you are taking one that is potent and viable.

This means looking at how they are shipped and handled, considering the stability of the selected strains, and understanding the difference between potency at manufacture verses potency at expiration.

Come on down if you’d like to hear about the difference between strains.

Scott Porter, a functional medicine pharmacist, is the director of the Center for Functional Nutrition at Sandpoint Super Drug.

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