For Patients & Caregivers

How It Works

Probiotics have been shown effective against diarrhea and certain inflammatory disorders. But data from well-designed clinical trials are needed to establish their use.

Probiotics are defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the World Health Organization as “live microorganisms, which when consumed in adequate amounts, confer a health effect on the host”. Majority of probiotics contain bacteria that produce lactic acid, such as Lactobacillus, Streptococcus, Bifidobacterium, Propionibacterium and Enterococcus or yeasts such as Saccharomyces boulardii that are not harmful.

Probiotics have grown popular over the last two decades because they are thought to improve digestion, immune function and nutrient absorption but the most important being the reversal of dysbiosis (changes in the function or composition of gut microbes) that is thought to play a role in the development of many chronic and degenerative diseases. Probiotic supplementation is promoted for the prevention and treatment of inflammatory bowel disease, gastroenteritis, irritable bowel syndrome, allergies, dental cavities, and for the management of diarrhea due to antibiotic use, due to the bacterium Clostridium dificile, and that associated with chemotherapy.

Other methods used to change the gut microbiota include “prebiotics” and “fecal microbiota transplantation” (FMT). Prebiotics, also known as functional foods, are non-digestible food ingredients that benefit the host by selectively promoting growth or activity of helpful gut bacteria. Because probiotics are short-lived, prebiotics are sometimes added to probiotics to maintain their levels in the gut. This combination of pro- and prebiotics is called “synbiotic therapy.” FMT involves administration of fecal matter from a healthy donor into a recipient by enema, colonoscopy or through the upper gastrointestinal tract in the form of oral capsules, via nasogastric, nasoduodenal or nasoenteric tube, or by endoscopy.

Current evidence indicates that probiotics may be useful for the treatment of some inflammatory disorders, and also have anti-carcinogenic activity. But the drawbacks of the studies include small sample size and poor methodology. Well-designed trials and guidelines are needed to recommend use of probiotics. Probiotics are generally considered safe, but their long-term safety is not known. Bacteremia (presence of bacteria in the blood), fungemia (presence of fungi in the blood), and endocarditis (inflammation in the lining of the heart) have been reported following use in newborns and in immunocompromised individuals.

Purported Uses

  • Diarrhea
    Several studies have shown that probiotics are effective in treating diarrhea caused by antibiotics, due to a bacterium known as Clostridium dificile, and diarrhea due to chemotherapy.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
    Probioitics were shown to benefit patients with pouchitis (inflammation of the ileal pouch after colectomy) and ulcerative colitis, but not those with Crohn’s disease.
  • Gastroenteritis
    There is strong evidence to support use of probiotics for controlling acute infectious diarrhea, which is the main cause of gastroenteritis.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
    Some studies indicate a benefit, but they are not well-designed. Clinical trials with good methodology are needed.
  • Urinary tract infections
    Evidence to support use is lacking.
  • Obesity
    Probiotics were shown to have beneficial effects.
    Diabetes
    There is evidence in favor of probiotics for individuals with diabetes.
  • Allergies
    Probiotic use had a moderate benefit in the prevention of eczema, but not other allergic conditions.
  • Dental cavities
    Probiotics were shown to increase resistance to the formation of cavities.
  • Cancer treatment-associated side effects
    Probiotic use is effective in controlling diarrhea due to chemo, in reducing infections at the site of surgery and in improving bowel function in colorectal patients.
  • Immunomodulation
    Studies done in mice show that probiotics can activate certain cells of immune system.

Do Not Take If

You are taking drugs that are substrates of hepatic drug-metabolizing enzymes: Because VSL3, a probiotic mixture of 8 bacterial strains, was shown to affect their activity.

Side Effects

Pediatric Case Reports:

  • Bacteremia associated with Escherichia coli and Bifidobacterium species: In pre-term infants as well as a newborn following probiotic use.
  • L. rhamnosus pneumonia: In a 11-month-old baby, secondary to a respiratory viral infection. She recovered after antibiotic therapy.
  • D-lactic acid encephalopathy, involving intermittent ataxia (inability to control volunteer muscle movement): In a 5-year-old girl following use of probiotics to control diarrhea. She was treated with oral antibiotics.
  • Bacteremia associated with Lactobacillus: In a 17-year-old boy with ulcerative colitis. His symptoms, which included fever, flushing and chills resolved following treatment with antibiotics.

Adult Case Reports:

  • Fungemia involving Saccharomyces cerevisiae: In a patient with Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhea who was treated orally with the probiotic yeast Saccharomyces boulardii.
  • Sepsis (inflammation due to an infection) associated with Saccharomyces cervesiae: In a 34-year-old woman with extensive burns, and administered Saccharomyces boulardii to improve the digestive tolerance to enteral feeding (food given through a tube into the stomach or small intestine).
  • Fungemia: In a 79-year-old woman following treatment with Sacchaflor (a probiotic consisting of S. boulardii) for Clostridium dificile-associated diarrhea. Her symptoms improved after stopping use of Sacchaflor.
  • Lactobacillus empyema (presence of pus): In a 54-year-old HIV-infected lung transplant patient, after taking a probiotic containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG. His symptoms resolved with antibiotic treatment.
  • Lactobacillus acidophilus bacteremia: In a patient with AIDS and Hodgkin’s disease following probiotic therapy containing L. acidophilus.
  • Sepsis due to preoperative administration of probiotics containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus: In a 24-year-old woman following an aortic valve replacement. She was treated with antibiotics.
  • Bloodstream infection: In a critically ill 64-year-old patient with acute pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), following administration of a symbiotic formula containing Pediococcus pentosaceus. He was treated with antibiotics.
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For Healthcare Professionals

Clinical Summary

The term “Probiotic” (Greek for “prolife”) came into being in the 1960s to define substances produced by protozoa, which support the growth of other microorganisms (1). Following revisions over the years, probiotics are currently defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the World Health Organization as “live microorganisms, which when consumed in adequate amounts, confer a health effect on the host” (2). Most probiotics consist of lactic-acid producing, non-virulent bacteria, such as Lactobacillus, Streptococcus, Bifidobacterium, Propionibacterium and Enterococcus or non-pathogenic yeasts such as Saccharomyces boulardii. Probiotics have gained immense popularity over the last two decades for their perceived health benefits which include improved digestion, immune function and nutrient absorption but the most important being the reversal of dysbiosis (changes in the function or composition of gut microbes or “microbiota”) that is hypothesized to play a role in the development of several chronic and degenerative diseases (3). Although gut microbiota is known to develop at birth, nutrition, lifestyle, and changes in the host genome during later years can shift its makeup and activity, which in turn influences overall health and the risk of developing disease. Antibiotic use can also disrupt the balance between beneficial and harmful bacteria (4) (5). Probiotic supplementation is currently promoted for the prevention and treatment of inflammatory bowel disease, gastroenteritis, irritable bowel syndrome, allergies, dental cavities, and for the management of diarrhea induced by antibiotics, by the bacterium Clostridium dificile, and that associated with chemotherapy (6). However, authoritative guidelines for probiotic use have not yet been established nor is there a consensus about the minimum number of microorganisms needed to derive benefits.

Probiotics have been evaluated in randomized controlled trials and the strongest evidence of their effectiveness is for acute infectious diarrhea, the main cause of acute gastroenteritis (7). Probiotic supplementation also was shown useful in alleviating antibiotic-associated diarrhea (8). Although small trials indicate effectiveness in the management of Clostridium dificile-associated diarrhea (CDAD), randomized trials did not find any benefit (9).The role of probiotics in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) has been the focus of many studies and available data support their efficacy for pouchitis (inflammation of the ileal pouch in post-colectomy patients). Interestingly, even though a range of products were shown useful in treating and sustaining remissions of mild to moderately active ulcerative colitis, findings of Crohn’s disease are not promising (10). Based on the association of intestinal bacteria with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), probiotic supplementation has been explored in a few studies. Although current data are encouraging, well-designed trials to support use are lacking (11). And analyses of the National Health and Nutrition survey results revealed that consumption of yogurt or probiotics reduces the risk of proteinuric kidney disease (12), but definitive conclusions about the role of probiotics for the treatment of urinary tract infections are lacking (13). Probiotic use was also shown to increase resistance to risk factors associated with dental caries in a randomized trial (14), and to improve memory impairment in a murine model (15). The utility of probiotics in preventing allergies has been addressed as well, with studies showing a moderate benefit for eczema prevention but not for other allergic conditions (16). Probiotic supplementation was also shown useful for the reduction of glycemic and inflammatory markers in patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (58).

As increasing evidence indicates that gut bacteria are important determinants of metabolic disorders, probiotics are being investigated as a possible therapeutic option. Thus far, beneficial effects have been reported against obesity and diabetes in mice and in humans (17). Meta analyses suggest that probiotic supplementation may lower fasting blood glucose level in adults (59) and may also improve lipid metabolism by lowering the levels of LDL and total cholesterol (18).

Another important application of probiotic therapy is in pediatrics for the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders and allergies. Meta analyses indicate that enteral supplementation of probiotics is effective in preventing severe necrotizing enterocolitis in preterm infants (19). And a significant reduction in acute diarrhea was reported in children, independent of the bacterial strains employed (7). Studies also indicate efficacy of probiotics against antibiotic-associated diarrhea (20). But available evidence does not support use for allergic diseases (21), and data are insufficient to assess effects in children with short bowel syndrome, a malabsorption disorder (22).

Preliminary studies also suggest that probiotics may have anti-carcinogenic potential. Preclinical data show that oral administration of Lactobacillus casei BL23 has a protective effect against dimethyl hydrazine-induced colorectal cancer (23), and a probiotic mixture attenuated the growth of hepatocellular carcinoma (24). Data from a large epidemiological study suggest an association between consumption of non-pasteurized dairy products and lower incidence of colorectal cancer (25). Probiotics may also aid in controlling symptoms associated with cancer treatments. Results from a systematic review showed a reduction in the severity and frequency of treatment-associated diarrhea, and the need for anti-diarrheal medication in cancer patients following probiotic supplementation (26). In other studies, perioperative probiotic treatment reduced surgical site infections in patients undergoing colorectal cancer surgery (27) and improved bowel function (28). More studies are underway (29).

In addition to probiotics, other strategies used to modulate gut microbiota that have recently gained attention include “prebiotics” and “fecal microbiota transplantation” (FMT). Prebiotics, also known as functional foods, are non-digestible food ingredients that benefit the host by selectively promoting growth or activity of helpful gut bacteria. Currently used prebiotics include the fructans inulin and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), and lactulose. A few studies have evaluated the utility of prebiotics for IBS but data are conflicting (11). Because probiotics are short-lived, prebiotics are being co-administered to maintain their levels in the gut. This combination of pro- and prebiotics is called “synbiotic therapy” that has been shown useful in controlling symptoms associated with IBS (30). FMT involves administration of fecal matter from a healthy donor into a recipient by enema, colonoscopy or through the upper gastrointestinal tract in the form of oral capsules, via nasogastric, nasoduodenal or nasoenteric tube, or by endoscopy, to restore normal gut flora. Some studies indicate that FMT might benefit IBS patients, but the quality of evidence is low. Further research is needed (31).

Although an increasing number of studies suggest that probiotics improve health by inducing favorable changes in the intestinal bacteria, the overall evidence to support their use is limited due to small sample size, poor methodology, variation in the species and strains of bacteria, and in the dosage and duration of administration. Variation in the response to probiotics is also an important factor to consider because genes that respond to probiotic intake were shown to be strain-specific (32) and to cluster according to the individual and not by intervention (32) (33). Well-designed studies and specific recommendations are needed to establish probiotic use for different age groups and disorders.

Probiotics are generally considered safe, but their long-term safety has not been determined. Bacteremia, fungemia, and endocarditis have been reported following use in newborns and in immunocompromised individuals.

Food Sources

Yogurt, miso, tempeh, kefir, pickled vegetables, sauerkraut, kimchi and buttermilk

Purported Uses

  • Diarrhea
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Allergies
  • Dental cavities
  • Cancer treatment-associated side effects
  • Immunomodulation

Mechanism of Action

Suggested mechanisms by which probiotics influence colonization in the gut include production of inhibitory compounds to suppress the growth of pathogenic microorganisms, and production of substrates to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. Probiotics can also indirectly influence shifts in microbiota by interacting with the mucosal system, which affects systemic immunity; and by reducing pro-inflammatory markers implicated in many disorders (34) (35).

Studies using murine models indicate that administration of S. boulardii to type-2 diabetic and obese mice resulted in reduced inflammation, body weight, fat mass, and hepatic steatosis, along with decreased bacterial population that has been previously associated with obesity and type-2 diabetes (36). Probiotic treatment also affected a reduction in food intake and an improvement in glucose tolerance via release of the hormone glucagon-like protein-1 (GLP-1), a physiological regulator of appetite and food intake (37).

Immunomodulation is one of the ways in which probiotics are thought to influence host health. A subspecies of Bifidobacterium longum prevented Salmonella-associated infection in mice by inducing T-regulatory cells and by attenuating the activation of nuclear factor-kappa B, which plays a role in the expression of pro-inflammatory genes (38). Induction of T-regulatory cells was also shown in humans along with a reduction in pro-inflammatory biomarkers (39). In addition probiotic administration was shown to reduce pain perception, and to induce changes in the colonic expression of genes that mediate pain and inflammation (40). And a probiotic mixture reduced the growth of hepatocellular carcinoma by shifting the gut microbes toward beneficial bacteria, which produce anti-inflammatory metabolites (24). Protective effects of probiotics were also reported in a murine model of mammary carcinogenesis. Oral administration of a supplement containing Lactobacillus reuteri resulted in inhibition of mammary tumor formation by triggering CD4+/CD25+ lymphocytes, which play a critical role in controlling immune responses. (41)

Contraindications

  • Patients who are immunocompromised, or have a central venous catheter or critically ill should not take probiotics containing S. boulardii (42).
  • Probiotics should not be given to newborns with very low birth weight, clinical instability, umbilical catheters, and to those with congenital abnormalities or stage III asphyxia (43).

Adverse Reactions

Pediatric Case Reports:

  • Bacteremia associated with Escherichia coli and Bifidobacterium species: In pre-term infants (44) (45) (46) as well as a newborn (47) following probiotic therapy.
  • Probiotic-associated L. rhamnosus pneumonia: In a 11-month-old baby, secondary to a respiratory viral infection. She recovered after antibiotic therapy (49).
  • D-lactic acid encephalopathy, involving intermittent ataxia: In a 5-year-old girl following use of probiotics to control diarrhea. She was treated with oral antibiotics (50).
  • Bacteremia associated with Lactobacillus: In a 17-year-old boy with ulcerative colitis. His symptoms, which included fever, flushing and chills resolved following treatment with antibiotics (48).

Adult Case Reports:

  • Fungemia involving Saccharomyces cerevisiae: In a patient with Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhea who was treated orally with the probiotic yeast Saccharomyces boulardii (51).
  • Sepsis associated with Saccharomyces cervesiae: In a 34-year-old woman with extensive burns, and administered Saccharomyces boulardii to improve the digestive tolerance to enteral feeding (52).
  • Fungemia: In a 79-year-old woman following treatment with Sacchaflor (a probiotic consisting of S. boulardii) for Clostridium dificile-associated diarrhea. Her symptoms improved after discontinuing use of Sacchaflor (53).
  • Lactobacillus empyema: In a 54-year-old HIV-infected lung transplant patient, after taking a probiotic containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG. His symptoms resolved with antibiotic treatment (6).
  • Lactobacillus acidophilus bacteremia: In a patient with AIDS and Hodgkin’s disease following probiotic therapy containing L. acidophilus(54).
  • Sepsis due to preoperative administration of a probiotic containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus: In a 24-year-old woman following an aortic valve replacement. She was treated with antibiotics (55).
  • Bloodstream infection: In a critically ill 64-year-old patient with acute pancreatitis, following administration of a symbiotic formula containing Pediococcus pentosaceus. He was treated with antibiotics (56).

Herb-Drug Interactions

  • Hepatic drug-metabolizing enzymes: In mice, administration of VSL3, a probiotic mixture of 8 bacterial strains, was shown to modify the expression of Cyp4v3, alcohol dehydrogenase 1, carboxyesterase 2a, and multiple phase II glutathione-S-transferases (57). Human data are lacking.

References


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  3. Jenq RR, Ubeda C, Taur Y, et al. Regulation of intestinal inflammation by microbiota following allogeneic bone marrow transplantation. J Exp Med. May 7 2012;209(5):903-911.

  4. Luong ML, Sareyyupoglu B, Nguyen MH, et al. Lactobacillus probiotic use in cardiothoracic transplant recipients: a link to invasive Lactobacillus infection? Transpl Infect Dis. Dec 2010;12(6):561-564.

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  27. O’Mahony C, Scully P, O’Mahony D, et al. Commensal-induced regulatory T cells mediate protection against pathogen-stimulated NF-kappaB activation. PLoS Pathog. 2008;4(8):e1000112.

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  30. Lakritz JR, Poutahidis T, Levkovich T, et al. Beneficial bacteria stimulate host immune cells to counteract dietary and genetic predisposition to mammary cancer in mice.Int J Cancer. Aug 1 2014;135(3):529-540.

  31. Guenther K, Straube E, Pfister W, Guenther A, Huebler A. Sever sepsis after probiotic treatment with Escherichia coli NISSLE 1917. Pediatr Infect Dis J. Feb 2010;29(2):188-189.

  32. Bertelli C, Pillonel T, Torregrossa A, et al. Bifidobacterium longum bacteremia in preterm infants receiving probiotics. Clin Infect Dis. Mar 15 2015;60(6):924-927.

  33. Jenke A, Ruf EM, Hoppe T, Heldmann M, Wirth S. Bifidobacterium septicaemia in an extremely low-birthweight infant under probiotic therapy. Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed. May 2012;97(3):F217-218.

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  35. Vahabnezhad E, Mochon AB, Wozniak LJ, Ziring DA. Lactobacillus bacteremia associated with probiotic use in a pediatric patient with ulcerative colitis. J Clin Gastroenterol. May-Jun 2013;47(5):437-439.

  36. Doern CD, Nguyen ST, Afolabi F, Burnham CA. Probiotic-associated aspiration pneumonia due to Lactobacillus rhamnosus. J Clin Microbiol. Aug 2014;52(8):3124-3126.

  37. Munakata S, Arakawa C, Kohira R, Fujita Y, Fuchigami T, Mugishima H. A case of D-lactic acid encephalopathy associated with use of probiotics. Brain Dev. Sep 2010;32(8):691-694.

  38. Santino I, Alari A, Bono S, et al. Saccharomyces cerevisiae fungemia, a possible consequence of the treatment of Clostridium difficile colitis with a probioticum. Int J Immunopathol Pharmacol. Jan-Mar 2014;27(1):143-146.

  39. Stefanatou E, Kompoti M, Paridou A, et al. Probiotic sepsis due to Saccharomyces fungaemia in a critically ill burn patient. Mycoses. Sep 2011;54(5):e643-646.

  40. Thygesen JB, Glerup H, Tarp B. Saccharomyces boulardii fungemia caused by treatment with a probioticum. BMJ Case Rep. 2012;2012.

  41. Ledoux D, Labombardi VJ, Karter D. Lactobacillus acidophilus bacteraemia after use of a probiotic in a patient with AIDS and Hodgkin’s disease. Int J STD AIDS. Apr 2006;17(4):280-282.

  42. Kochan P, Chmielarczyk A, Szymaniak L, et al. Lactobacillus rhamnosus administration causes sepsis in a cardiosurgical patient—is the time right to revise probiotic safety guidelines? Clin Microbiol Infect. Oct 2011;17(10):1589-1592.

  43. Papanikolaou MN, Balla M, Papavasilopoulou T, Kofinas G, Karatzas S. Probiotics: an obedient ally or an insidious enemy? Crit Care. 2012;16(6):456.

  44. Selwyn FP, Cheng SL, Klaassen CD, Cui JY. Regulation of Hepatic Drug-Metabolizing Enzymes in Germ-Free Mice by Conventionalization and Probiotics. Drug Metab Dispos. Feb 2016;44(2):262-274.

  45. Nikbakht E, Khalesi S, Singh I, Williams LT, West NP, Colson N.Effect of probiotics and synbiotics on blood glucose: a systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled trials. Eur J Nutr. 2016 Sep 3. [Epub ahead of print]

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