Probiotics: 'Good' bacteria may ease intestinal disorders
date: 5/17/2006
We examine the evidence for another use for probiotics: easing painful intestinal disorders triggered by chronic stress.
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If bacteria have ever gotten a warm welcome in medicine it's now: probiotics—the "friendly" bacteria that live in the small intestine but can also be ingested from yogurt and supplements—have long been believed to promote good health by aiding digestion and preventing potentially harmful intestinal bugs from becoming truly harmful. In the past several years, researchers have been trying to assess their full potential, with studies suggesting probiotics may ease bladder infections and food allergies and even shorten the length and severity of a cold. And now researchers may have found another possible use for the microbes: easing painful intestinal disorders triggered by chronic stress.

In a recent study, Canadian researchers found that rats faced with a stressful situation—being trapped on a platform in a bucket of water—had decreased resistance to the harmful effects of normal intestinal bacteria. The exposure to stress made their intestinal lining more permeable, allowing the bacteria to migrate into the intestinal wall and inflame adjacent lymph nodes.

But if they received probiotics with their drinking water, the stressed rats were less likely to have those bacteria invade their gut walls. The probiotics prevented the changes induced by stress that allowed intestinal bacteria to migrate.

The study may eventually help the millions who suffer from intestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome, and experience a flare-up when they're anxious. But it's premature to use probiotics for relief of symptoms. Researchers caution that studies on human models need to be done to determine if probiotics would have the same effect in people. They also aren't sure which strains of probiotics might work best.

Consumer Reports Health rates the two most frequently studied strains, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, as possibly effective for preventing diarrhea and treating and preventing eczema in children. When choosing probiotics, look for products that have at least 1 billion units per serving of either strain and avoid taking them with antibiotics, which could reduce their effectiveness. If you prefer getting probiotics from yogurt, make sure it bears the National Yogurt Association's Live & Active Cultures seal and has been stored properly.

And while probiotics appear to be largely harmless, people with suppressed immunity, pregnant or nursing women, infants, and children with short bowel syndrome should avoid them.


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