Side Effects Of Probiotics
Although the concept that certain strains of bacteria provide great benefits for the human body has been brought into discussion at the beginning of the past century, probiotics have only gained attention in the past decades. We now know that they play an essential role in the digestive process and that they’ll benefit the immune system, but research still has a long way to go. Not because of the lack of effort, as hundreds of studies have been performed on these organisms, but because of their very nature, which is not as simple as it’s perceived by the general public.
Because they’re believed to be very beneficial, many different strains of bacteria are labeled as probiotics simply because they seem to be harmless for the human body, an assumption based on the fact that they’re naturally found in the intestine and other areas. But there’s a huge difference between “harmless” and “beneficial”, and expecting all these individual species to have similar behaviors can only benefit the manufacturing companies, although many of them are truly focused on their customers’ wellbeing. This is because these tiny organisms are much more complex than it’s believed by most consumers and are able to interact with the host in the most unexpected ways, many of which we don’t yet understand. The ongoing research constantly discovers both new benefits and dangers, and the latter is a serious enough concern for the FDA to issue a warning.
Are Probiotics An Efficient Treatment?
Because the science of probiotics is still in it’s emerging phase, they’re not classified as medicine even if they receive more and more attention from the FDA. The general effects of some strands, most of them found in the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium genera, are known well enough to even be recommended and used by many health practitioners, but new scientific studies reveal many unexpected qualities. Still, because we understand very little about how these organisms actually interact with our bodies, often times the positive results are considered inconclusive, and so are the side effects.
This helps probiotics keep their alternative health products status and stay available for purchase by basically anyone interested in them. And this is great on one hand, because they really are helpful to some degree. They’ll alleviate and even heal many minor intestinal disorders, relieve digestive discomfort, fight germs and provide many other benefits. But this doesn’t make them completely safe, and more and more users are becoming aware that they can’t be looked at like a type of medicine, simply because unlike the “inert” compounds we usually ingest, these organisms are live and out of our control once we set them free inside our bodies. At first thought this doesn’t seem like a reason for concern because we naturally host hundreds of species of bacteria in out intestinal tract alone. And since they’re already there, how could increasing their number cause any damage? Well, there are many ways in which they could harm us, with some very serious consequences in certain situations.
How Much Do We Really Know About Probiotics?
Some specialists claim that the problem in understating probiotics lies in the approach. Many studies focus on their qualities as medicine, and not very much on how they interact with each other. They’re tested mostly for the expected benefits, where Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and one particular strand of yeast give good results in minor and even moderately dangerous conditions. Along with keeping the balance of the intestinal flora, some bacterial strains will prevent and treat viral infections that affect the digestive and respiratory systems, and even prevent cavities. One strain of Lactobacillus in particular has been proven as very effective in treating and preventing diarrhea of various causes (from antibiotics to viruses), and also in reducing the intensity of allergic reactions, and as a treatment for skin conditions. This is Lactobacillus GG, a very potent strain that seems able to actively fight infections and might be the best choice for users with a weaker immune system. But not many probiotic consumers are aware that the strength of these tiny organisms could be easily turned against them is certain circumstances.
This is not a problem for healthy consumers that only use probiotics for the treatment of minor issues. These strains of bacteria are almost always harmless when ingested by decently healthy individuals, like most health supplement consumers tend to be. This is why there aren’t many complaints about probiotics and those that do exist only talk about minor side effects, a situation which has led to the general belief that these products are one of the few types of supplements that can be used by anyone without any negative consequences. This is probably one the major factors that contributed to their popularity, and hopefully they’ll remain the choice of the healthy consumers because they have the potential of becoming deadly for those in dangerous conditions. But first, let’s see how they can affect the healthy users.
Common Side Effects of Probiotics
Before enjoying the benefits of probiotics, many users have to deal with intestinal issues that might be even more troublesome than the ones that they are trying to treat. Bloating, gas, diarrhea, cramps and similar unpleasant conditions can be experienced for days and even weeks, but it seems like the problem is only common with supplements. Unlike fermented foods that contain probiotics in limited numbers, these products have CFU(colony forming unit) counts that vary between 1 and 200 billion, which causes a more serious impact over the intestinal flora. Most supplement manufacturers warn their customers about the probiotics side effects, claiming them to be a sign of the body adjusting to the new organisms. And that is very true, as this is exactly what’s going on and the symptoms usually disappear after a short period of time, allowing only the positive effect to manifest. But why would we even need to adjust, given that we host hundreds and hundreds of billions of individual organisms anyway? The bacteria we naturally have in or bodies actually makes for about 3 pounds of our total weight and outnumbers the cells in our bodies in a ratio of 10 to 1, so why does a couple of extra billions affect us?
Since science, despite the efforts of many specialists, doesn’t yet have most of the answers that we’re looking for, many speculate based on the few findings that we do have. One theory about what causes the common side effects (and some more serious dangers, as we’ll see later), states that the problems might be caused by the soil-based organisms. These species of bacteria are commonly included in supplements, and for a good reason, as they reproduce faster and generate better results than the ones usually found in the digestive system. Of course, soil-based organisms can too be found in our bodies, but in much smaller numbers. And apparently this small number is what causes digestive and immune disorders in the first place.
Some claim that we lack the right amounts of this bacteria because we’re no longer exposed to germs as often as it has been normal in the course of human evolution. Children are not allowed to play outside and get dirty as much as they once were, which causes them to not receive the amount of soil-based bacteria that they would need for optimal health. They’re protected from germs but at the same time denied the helpful organisms, and it seems like the problem can’t be remedied by later exposure. Apparently, if the body doesn’t become used to these strains of bacteria in early childhood, it won’t be able to recognize them later and it will never be a healthy environment for them. This is what causes the side effects, and also what stops the bacteria from establishing a healthy population in the intestine after being ingested. It seems that most supplements will only be efficient as long as they’re ingested, as the bacteria will be eliminated in a few weeks after the intake stops. The bodies of adults simply can’t accept them as part of the local flora and will dispose of them as soon as possible, but apparently this is not the only problem that can be caused by the lack of exposure to these strains of bacteria.
The Real Danger
In the case of soil-based organisms, their ability to reproduce at a very fast rate, while making them very beneficial for healthy bodies, might be the trait that makes them the most dangerous species when it comes to the individuals who are very vulnerable to infections. Because while probiotics in general are very helpful for the immune system, they might behave like harmful bacteria if they’re not part of a balanced ecosystem. If the body can’t keep them under control, certain species can multiply to the point when they outnumber any other microorganisms and become a serious threat for health. And this is not only the case with bacteria that the body is not used to, but also with many species that are naturally found in the body in large numbers.
People affected by critical illnesses or that suffer from immune disorders should avoid probiotics at all costs, as the body won’t be able to use them in it’s benefit and allow them to cause infections. While probiotics are not able to actually cause diseases, the body will react to an exaggerated number of organisms, which might lead to sepsis. This condition affects the entire body and can lead to shock, which in turn might cause death if left untreated. And unfortunately, probiotics have caused death in patients of all ages. But in all these cases the victims were already suffering from very serious conditions before ingesting probiotics, so healthy users have no reason to be concerned. A slight imbalance of the immune system won’t allow probiotics to cause problems and will most likely be fixed by using them, but otherwise the user will require antibiotics, which themselves might be a factor that contributes to unwanted reactions to friendly bacteria in the first place. But before understanding how antibiotics affect the way in which the body interacts with probiotics, we must first have a look at the role these organisms play in the health of the immune system.
Probiotics Role In The Immune System
A healthy amount of friendly bacteria will not only assure good digestion, but help the body make the difference between them and the dangerous organisms. Most of them are found in the digestive tract, which includes an amazing amount of neurons that make it function in a manner very similar to the brain. As simple as they seem, our digestive tracts have some very smart abilities, and deliver much of the information acquired to the brain. The entire body will learn what helps it and what should be expelled, and without enough probiotics it might not perceive the dangers posed by infectious bacteria and allow it to flourish. On top of that, many probiotic strains will actively remove unwanted germs, either by creating an environment that doesn’t provide them with the nutrients needed to feed and reproduce or by directly killing them off through the substances they secrete. Also, some infectious strains of bacteria will attach to some probiotic strains, which will keep them in the intestine. This means that they won’t be able to spread in the entire body and affect the organs and tissues that they normally would, and will be expelled naturally. This is how important the probiotics naturally found in the body are, and while many factors could be very dangerous for their population, nothing affects them as fast as antibiotics.
These compounds, which otherwise are one of the greatest achievements in the history of medicine, will kill off all bacteria, including probiotics. Using them should be a last resort, as constantly reducing the number of bacteria will have very serious consequences on the body’s natural ability to defend itself. Not only will it not be able to recognize germs, but might actually treat probiotics as germs when the individual is trying to fix the problem. This is why sometimes probiotics cause allergic reactions even if they belong to the species that are naturally found in the body, and in severe cases could even cause death. Although we only have proof for probiotics causing fatal reactions in people that were already in dangerous conditions, some claim that these problems could even be encountered in healthy people that lack a decent amount of probiotics, if a person with such a low population of good bacteria could even be considered healthy. Hopefully this theory is wrong and sepsis could only be a problem in isolated cases, but it seems like the danger doesn’t stop here.
Resistance To Antibiotics
While many problems are caused by antibiotics killing the good bacteria, some might arise from some strains’ ability to defend themselves against these compounds. As odd as it seems, some friendly bacterial species are not affected by many types of antibiotics, and this would be a great trait of these organisms if they weren’t able to exchange genetic material. It seems like recent studies have come to the conclusion that different bacterial species interact in the least expected ways, helping each other adapt to different environments. Their genetic makeup is unstable and will change given the right circumstances, and antibiotics might actively contribute to this processes. As a defense response, different strains of bacteria become more and more strong, and while this looks like good news for healthy people that naturally have or are ingesting the right amounts of probiotics, it might lead to those that are affected by these organisms to be unable to defend against them. An infection with an antibiotic resistant probiotic might lead to death, but the problem is even more serious than that.
Because not only probiotics exchange genetic material, but all bacteria. This means that in the right conditions some very dangerous germs might receive genes that make them resistant to antibiotics from the specific strains of probiotics that have them, leaving the host and everybody else acquiring the new strain of bacteria almost impossible to treat. We were already aware of how fast bacteria evolves given that antibiotic resistance has become a real problem, but we’re only now starting to realize the we ourselves might aggravate it by willingly ingesting organisms that, while fighting germs, are also able to help them.
This doesn’t mean that we should expect for probiotics to cause an epidemic or that we should stop using them, because they do have amazing benefits. Harmful bacteria will evolve to become more resistant by itself and we can’t take any action that would prevent it, but we can be more careful with probiotics and not allow dangerous strains to receive advantages for no good reason. Probiotics can help in many conditions, but people in excellent health have to reason to use them unless they’re travelling or are exposed to sudden temperature changes. You’ll have to increase the amount of probiotics naturally found in your body for your immune system to be able to fight the bacteria from unfamiliar places and handle new foods, and also when different temperatures allow specific types of harmful bacteria to multiply faster. Otherwise they should only be used when they’re needed, by individuals who don’t watch their diets and can’t supply the right amounts of nutrients for the good bacteria (which allows germs to prosper), by those who suffer from intestinal issues which while not dangerous, can’t be cured either and require constant help (like in the case of irritable bowel syndrome sufferers), by those with a slightly imbalanced immune system who are prone to upsetting infections (like the common cold), and women that are prone to vaginal affections, as in their case a large amount of bacteria is found in this area.
Should we be concerned?
While probiotics are a great and very natural solution for many of our health problems, we should never forget what they really are. We host them but they are not “designed” for us, so we can’t expect them to always work in our benefit. Like all bacterial species, they’ll multiply as much as possible given the right conditions, and while the main problem for most of us is precisely not having the perfect environment that would allow them to thrive, the situation can easily turn around when we’re vulnerable.
Probiotic supplements should never be used without a doctor’s approval, and of course never by people that suffer from chronic conditions. It should always be remembered that they’re not able to treat, and even worse, will aggravate serious illnesses, and shouldn’t be regarded as the answer to any unpleasant digestive issue. Before starting the treatment with a probiotic supplement any user should have their health carefully evaluated, just to make sure that they’re not affected by a dangerous condition without obvious symptoms and of course, that the issues that they’re planning to solve through probiotics are not a sign of a more serious affection. Parents that want to treat their children with probiotics should be especially careful, even if some brands have designed products especially for young users. While probiotics seem to provide the fastest results in this age group, this also means that children are faster to develop unwanted reactions.