The Right Probiotics for Your Stomach Problems

Some probiotics can be more helpful than others, depending on the health issue.

Scientists have known for decades that probiotics can boost your health. That's why yogurt's "active cultures" are touted so often. These cultures can also be found in cereal, cheese, energy bars, soup, and a wealth of other products filling up grocery and pharmacy shelves. Their labels promise everything from fewer tummy aches to faster cold and flu recovery.

But probiotics aren't all created equal, said University of Western Ontario microbiologist Gregor Reid, PhD, who has studied them. For example, Saccharomyces cerevisiae boulardii probably won't do a thing for eczema, and vice versa, studies have shown.

So how do you decide which one to take? Read on for tips on which probiotics help your most common complaints.

The "Anti-Antibiotic" Probiotic

In a healthy body, trillions of bacteria colonize the skin, mouth, intestines, and genital tract. "They do a great job fighting off disease-causing microbes trying to gain entry," said University of Washington epidemiologist Lynne McFarland, PhD, the co-author of The Power of Probiotics. "But taking antibiotics can open up a window of opportunity for pathogens to move in." So-called antibiotic-associated diarrhea is a classic example, with C. diff being the most common culprit. Fortunately, three specific probiotic strains (S. cerevisiae boulardii, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, and Bacillus coagulans GBI-30) can reduce infection risk while you're taking antibiotics and shortly after. That's the vulnerable period. Researchers don't know exactly how these trains do their thing; some believe they may simply overpower the invaders.

The "Get Well Down There" Probiotic

Even when you're perfectly hygienic, intestinal bugs can stray into your vagina and urinary tract. A healthy vagina is home to bacteria that repel these microbes. Unfortunately, antibiotics, douches, and spermicides can lower the levels of protective bacteria. In an April 2021 Indian Journal of Medical Research study, the researchers investigated the effects of oral probiotics on the vaginal and gut microbiota of 16 pregnant women with a bacterial vaginosis diagnosis. They found that, after taking capsules with L. rhamnosus GR-1 and L. reuteri RC-14, the women had microbiota profiles that were the same as women without bacterial vaginosis. So, once or twice a day, take capsules of L. rhamnosus GR-1 and L. reuteri RC-14, which reach the vagina via the intestinal tract (just like the bugs they have been shown to repel). Once there, they muscle out the problem bugs associated with bacterial vaginosis (BV), urinary infections, and even yeast.

The "Boost Your Immunity" Probiotic

Lab studies have shown that many probiotics have invigorating effects on the immune system. In theory, this should increase a person's resistance to disease. But only a few strains, like L. casei DN-114001, L. rhamnosus GG, and L. acidophilus NCFM, seem to reduce the frequency and severity of illnesses like winter colds. Researchers of a 2021 International Journal of Agricultural Environment and Food Sciences noted that the "main lactic acid bacteria are Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus rhamnosus, which can inhibit pathogenic microorganisms, strengthen immune system, and improve the microbial balance of the gastrointestinal tract."

The "Soothe Irritable Bowel" Probiotic

In the adult population, up to 20% of individuals know the belly pain and bloating discomfort of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), according to the Office of Women's Health. Experts don't fully understand what causes IBS, nor do they have effective meds to treat it. But some of the most encouraging news comes out of studies using the probiotic strains Bifidobacterium longum 35624 and L. plantarum DSM9843. For example, 233 patients with IBS in a February 2022 study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology benefited from 30 days of Bifidobacterium longum 35624 treatment for their symptoms.

"The "Fight Eczema" Probiotic

Scientists link a modern epidemic of allergic conditions with the relative lack of bacteria in our sanitized lives. And some research has shown that certain probiotics raise levels of allergy-calming chemicals in the blood. But probiotics don't appear to be all that helpful with one exception: eczema, an allergic skin condition. Across nine articles that included a total of 2,093 infants in an April 2021 Nutrients meta-analysis, researchers determined that a mixture of probiotics—namely Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium—were helpful in reducing eczema in those children.

The "Avoid Travelers' Diarrhea" Probiotic

According to the National Library of Medicine, 40% to 60% of individuals can be affected by travelers' diarrhea. This is caused by parasites and infectious bacteria in unsanitary water, which are common in less-developed countries. But don't despair. Studies have shown that the S. cerevisiae boulardii strain reduces the risk of developing travelers' diarrhea (if you start taking it a week before you go) and can help cure established infections.

What About Prebiotics?

If certain gut bacteria promote good health, it makes sense to eat a diet rich in the nutrients that make those microbes happy. That's the concept behind prebiotics, which include several kinds of soluble plant fiber that are abundant in foods like onions, garlic, and leeks. Prebiotics appear to promote the growth of good bugs that fight gut invaders like salmonella, and supplements are even showing up on store shelves. Should you take them? Maybe someday: The research is still developing. While studies continue, stick with the pros.

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