I’ve been receiving some questions from parents regarding probiotics for their children, so I thought I’d give a quick primer on the facts about probiotics, as well as my thoughts on using them.
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are essentially living bacteria which are considered “good” bacteria and that have beneficial health effects. Probiotics may be added to foods and beverages and even infant formula or may be taken in the form of capsule or powder. These bacteria are a normal occurring part of our intestinal tract which aid in digestion, boost the body’s natural defenses, and fight of harmful bacteria that can cause health problems. The normal bacteria in the intestines may have been altered by illness, antibiotic use, or by what we eat (e.g. eating modified foods, not eating enough fiber). We know that babies born by C-section have a different population of bacteria compared with babies born vaginally, and breast fed babies have different bacteria than formula fed babies.
Healthy bacteria can be found naturally in fermented food products such as yogurt, sour cream, sauerkraut, pickles and buttermilk. Pasteurization eliminates bacteria in modern foods, so companies are now fortifying foods to re-introduce the healthy bacteria.
What Are Some of the Health Benefits of Probiotics?
In children, studies have shown that probiotics help speed up recovery from diarrhea caused by infections by a day or two and prevent approximately 1 in 7 cases of antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Studies have also supported probiotic use in the treatment of an infection in the stomach caused by H. Pylori.
One study in 50 infants showed a reduction in crying times of colicky babies given a probiotic called Lactobacillus reuteri. Further studies are necessary.
Another study showed a beneficial effect of probiotics in the treatment of symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in children.
Some studies have supported the use of probiotics during pregnancy and breast feeding to help prevent eczema, asthma, and allergies (atopic diseases), but there are contradictory studies as well, so more research is needed before a recommendation for routine use for this purpose can be made.
NO studies have shown a definite beneficial effect of probiotics in preventing infections outside of the intestine, such as colds or ear infections. Other health benefits attributed to probiotics such as the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease, constipation, and the prevention of cancer require much more research.
Safety and Efficacy of Probiotics
Generally the risks of giving a probiotic supplement in children with a healthy immune system is very low. A recent report studied infants fed formula containing probiotics and there were no apparent adverse events.
There have been a few reports of serious infections that occurred with probiotic use. Children at risk would include ill, preterm infants, patients who are immunocompromised, and patients who have indwelling medical devices such as intravenous catheters, so probiotics should not be used in these children.
Should I Give My Child a Daily Probiotic?
Well, probiotics are generally safe and healthful. The evidence seems to be strongest for their use to treat specific conditions such as diarrhea. It may not be a bad idea to incorporate foods that naturally contain probiotics into your child’s diet. As far as taking a daily supplement, I would hold off for now until the research is more clear.
Yours in health,