Probiotics Are Not Antibiotics

September 29, 2015

Probiotics are not medications like antibiotics. They are live microorganisms (bacteria) that are “good” bacteria and can be found in the body or added to certain food products or taken as dietary supplements. Antibiotics work to kill harmful bacteria whereas probiotics are friendly or helpful bacteria. Although used in Europe for many years, they started gaining popularity in the U.S. in the 1990’s and their consumption continues to rise as they are more heavily marketed and the consumer perpetually seeks new and alternate ways to stay healthy.   Data from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) show that about 4 million (1.6 percent) U.S. adults had used probiotics or prebiotics in the past 30 days and the use of probiotics has quadrupled between 2007 and 2012. Probiotics are found in many foods including beverages, cereals, chocolate and yogurt. They also come in pill or capsule form and may also be found in skin creams.  

With the heavy commercial promotion of probiotics, you may be wondering if you should be consuming more probiotics.  Do they truly improve health? Can they be harmful? A review of articles suggests that probiotics might: help to maintain a desirable balance of microorganisms in the body; improve digestive health; help the digestive tract return to normal after an illness or antibiotic use; treat diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome; prevent and treat vaginal yeast infections and urinary tract infections; prevent or reduce severity of colds and flu; and stimulate the immune response. The key word is “might” as more research is needed as to how they work, which ones work best for a given condition and how much should be consumed to achieve the desired effect.

There are different kinds of probiotics that researchers believe work in different ways. The most common group are lactobacillus found in yogurt and other fermented products. Another common group are bifidobacterium which may be found in other dairy products.  In addition to probiotics, you may see the term “prebiotics” and “synbiotics.” Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that act as food for probiotics. When they combine, they form a synbiotic element containing both live bacteria and the fuel the bacteria need to thrive.

Whether probiotics are likely to be safe for you depends on the state of your health. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, people who are generally healthy experience few complications. Side effects, if any, may be mild digestive symptoms such as gas. However, there have been reports linking probiotics to severe side effects in people with serious underlying medical problems, such as following surgery, people with weakened immune systems or very sick infants.

Probiotics are not regulated, as are drugs. Therefore, it is important to discuss alternative medical treatment with your health care provider (even if the reason that you turn to alternative remedies is to avoid traditional medical settings.) Always let a provider know about any alternative medical treatments you are using when you seek treatment for a condition or ailment.  Like any medicine, dietary supplements and “natural” products can cause side effects, trigger an allergic reaction or interact with other medicines you take. This can make a condition worse.  Probiotics should not be used to substitute for a medically-prescribed treatment without discussion with your health care provider.

To learn more about probiotics and alternative medicine, visit the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (formerly called the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine) https://nccih.nih;; or   Be sure the information you google is from a reliable website and not from a site selling the product. District residents (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) can call Quinnipiack Valley Health District at 203 248-4528 or email for information.