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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

yogurt with blueberries
Call our dietitians for nutritional counseling on probiotics and other dietary solutions for your symptoms and side effects at 1-877-907-0859.

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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Thrive Issue: 
Spring, 2016