The Wonder Bug: Probiotics
by Nancy Burke, R.D., Danielle Karsies, M.S., R.D. and Melissa Shannon-Hagen, R.D., C.S.O., University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center Symptom Management and Supportive Care Program
Whether you're a healthy person looking to reduce cancer risk or a patient in treatment experiencing diarrhea, probiotics could be your wonder bug.
What are probiotics?
These friendly bacteria help ferment, decompose and digest the food we eat. They keep disease-causing bacteria in check and play a role in immune health. Some probiotics are bacteria while others are yeast. Their benefits vary.
For example, yeast strains such as Saccharomyces boulardii are recommended for antibiotic-induced diarrhea. VSL#3 helps with irritable bowel syndrome or diarrhea from pelvic radiation.
Good sources of probiotics:
Yogurt, by law, contains at least two strains of probiotics: Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. Always check the label and be sure "live and active cultures" is listed.
Kefir is a yogurt-like drink that contains even more probiotics.
Excellent news for those with lactose intolerance: probiotics help you digest lactose sugar during fermentation so most people can tolerate yogurt and kefir. If not, there are non-dairy probiotics:
- unpasteurized sauerkraut
- kimchi, seasoned and fermented Korean vegetables
- fermented soybean, including tempeh, miso and natto
- kefir made from coconut water or milk
Probiotics may decrease:
- radiation-induced diarrhea when given at the start of radiation
- diarrhea during treatment
- post-treatment intestinal complications
What about a pill?
A lack of federal regulation of supplements and the effects of heat, processing and age on probiotic counts make foods the best choice However, probiotic supplements can be a viable option. Look for supplements that contain multiple strains, including lactobacillus rhamnosus and saccharomyces boulardii, and at least 3-4 billion probiotic count.
A word of caution
For most people, the potential benefits of probiotics far outweigh any risk.
An exception: if you are immunocompromised from certain chemotherapies or post-organ transplant, high doses of probiotics may not be recommended. Ask your physician.
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