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Do 'probiotics' work?

By Rob Stein

A lot of people these days are taking "probiotics" to help with a host of health problems. Probiotics are live microorganisms, such as bacteria. But these bugs supposedly make people feel better instead of making them sick. This may sound odd. But there's some evidence that this approach could be beneficial, given that we all carry around lots of microorganisms in our bodies to help carry out a host of functions. But do they really work?

Well, a new analysis by a well-respected group says they do, at least for diarrhea. And diarrhea is a major health problem, killing nearly 2 million people, mostly children, each year in developing countries. The primary treatment is hydrating patients to keep them from getting dehydrated. But that doesn't really shorten how long someone is sick. The idea behind giving people probiotics is that those microorganisms may compete with the bacteria, viruses or parasites causing the diarrhea, shortening the illness.

Supermarket probiotic items. (Julia Ewan-The Washington Post)

Stephen Allen of the School of Medicine at Swansea University in Britain led an analysis of the scientific literature for the Cochrane Collaboration, a U.K.-based group that regularly evaluates the state of scientific evidence for medical treatments. In this case, the researchers reviewed data from 63 studies with a total of 8,014 patients, including 56 studies involving infants and children. Giving probiotics, along with fluids, reduces the length of diarrhea by about a day and reduces the risk of diarrhea lasting four or more days by 59 percent, the researchers learned. No serious side effects were found.

A second review by a separate group of Cochrane researchers examined probiotics for treating persistent diarrhea and found that they could reduce the length of each episode. But that was a much smaller review, based on just four studies involving 464 patients.

Together, the reviews indicate that the approach can be helpful and doesn't appear to carry significant risks.

By Rob Stein  | November 10, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Travel Health, diarrhea  
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I believe probiotic supplements absolutely work! With the amount of bacteria and 'foreign invaders' we take in when we eat or even just breathe, we tend to get an imbalance of good vs bad in our system. This can turn our digestive system upside down and cause all kinds of problems. I certainly use them myself as well as recommend them to others. Taking in a healthy dose of living 'good' bacteria can fight off the 'bad' micro-organisms that cause problems for us. That doesn't, of course, mean all supplements are created equal!

Posted by: honeybnutrition | November 10, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

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