Lactobacillus is a kind of bacterium. It's found usually in the mouth, intestinal tract, urinary and genital systems. There are in fact many different species of lactobacillus. These are what scientists refer to as “good” or “friendly” bacteria. We not only welcome them but we need them in our system to help maintain good health. You can also find lactobacillus in some fermented foods like yogurt, and in special dietary supplements. Lactobacilli are ubiquitous and generally quite harmless.
The Primary Purpose of Lactobacillus
The primary purpose of lactobacillus is for treating and preventing diarrhea. This includes infectious types such as rotavirus diarrhea in children and traveler's diarrhea. Another use is to prevent and treat diarrhea associated with the taking of antibiotics. Lactobacillus works by helping to fight off “unfriendly” organisms which trigger these conditions. It also assists in the breakdown of food inside the body and absorbs nutrients .
Lactobacilli for Treating Antibiotic-Associated Issues
Antibiotic-associated diarrhea is a pretty common condition. The reason for this is because antibiotics can and often do mess with your intestinal flora. The intestinal flora is the symbiotic bacteria that occurs naturally in the gut and is necessary for good health. The problem with broad-spectrum antibiotics is that they don't only get rid of the bad bacteria. As antibiotics wipe out “friendly” bacterium, potentially pathogenic bacteria then gets to move in. If this happens, intestinal issues, including diarrhea, are soon to follow.
There are quite a few different strains of lactobacilli. Most of them will do a good job at protecting and restoring health, but there are a couple that come out on top. Tests have shown that lactobacillus GG and Saccharomyces Boulardii are the most effective at treating antibiotic-associated diarrhea .
Below are most of the common uses for Lactobacilli, conclusive or alleged. We can divide these into four groups based on the research data thus far:
- Likely effective for
- Possibly effective for
- Possibly ineffective for
- Insufficient evidence for
Likely Effective For:
- Diarrhea in children caused by a certain virus (rotavirus)
Tests have shown that kids with rotaviral diarrhea tend to get over the condition about a half day earlier than usual when treated with lactobacillus. Larger doses proved to be the most effective.
Possibly Effective For:
- Colic in babies
- Helps prescription medications treat Helicobacter pylori (H pylori) infection
- Lung infections in children
- Preventing diarrhea due to cancer treatment (chemotherapy)
- Preventing diarrhea due to traveling (traveler’s diarrhea)
- Preventing diarrhea in children caused by antibiotics
- Preventing diarrhea in hospitalized adults
- Treating a bowel condition called ulcerative colitis
- Treating and preventing eczema in infants and children who are allergic to cow’s milk
- Treating diarrhea caused by the bacterium Clostridium difficile
- Treating irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Treating vaginal infections caused by bacteria (bacterial vaginosis)
Possibly Ineffective For:
- Crohn's disease
- Lactose intolerance
- Reducing symptoms of too much bacteria in the intestines
- Vaginal yeast infections after taking antibiotics
Insufficient Evidence For:
- Urinary tract infections (UTIs)
- Digestion problems (general)
- Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) in babies born prematurely
- High cholesterol
- lactose-intolerance (sensitivity to milk)
- Lyme disease
- Skin conditions: fever blisters, canker sores and acne
- Boosting the immune system
- Common colds
- Preventing infections in people on ventilators
- Other conditions
This last category doesn't suggest lactobacilli are not effective or that the potential health claims are mere hearsay. It just means that more tests need carrying out before any of these claims can move up through the categories .
Tests are ongoing and it’s inevitable that science will reveal more to us as time goes by.
Available Forms of Lactobacillus
You can buy L. acidophilus preparations in dried or liquid cultures of living bacteria. Quite often, these cultures are grown in milk, but they can also be grown in milk-free cultures .
The following forms are available:
- Freeze-dried granules
- Freeze-dried powders
- Freeze-dried capsules
- Liquid preparations
- Yogurt enhanced with probiotics
- Vaginal suppositories
Concerns – Side Effects and Safety
It's important to note that not all lactobacillus products are equal. In recent times there have been some concerns about the quality of various products on sale. Some of them state on the label that they contain Lactobacillus acidophilus yet don't contain any at all. Some others that do have the bacteria contain a different strain like Lactobacillus bulgaricus. And there are even some products out there contaminated with “unfriendly” bacteria. It's important to make sure you get the right product from a reliable source.
Lactobacillus is safe to take for the majority of healthy people. This includes babies and children. Some people may experience side effects, though in most cases these tend to be mild at best. Symptoms can include intestinal gas or bloating. Lactobacillus is also safe for women to use inside the vagina.
Those who should not use lactobacillus without medical guidance are:
- Pregnant or breast-feeding women
- People with a weakened immune system
- Sufferers of short bowel syndrome
You need to be cautious about using lactobacillus with the following combination of drugs:
- Antibiotic drugs
- Medications that decrease the immune system (Immunosuppressants)
Remember that antibiotics can destroy friendly microorganisms in the body as well as the harmful bacteria. Because lactobacillus is a form of “friendly bacteria,” it can lose its effect if you take it too close to taking antibiotics. The only way to avoid this interaction is to take lactobacillus at least two hours before or after you have taken your dose of antibiotics.
Your immune system controls bacteria and yeast in the body. It does this to prevent infections and fight against disease. Any type of medications that decrease the immune system can increase your chances of becoming ill from bacteria and yeast.
The number of living organisms per capsule determines the strength of lactobacillus products. Normal doses range from 1 to 10 billion living organisms. Doses are usually daily, divided into 3 – 4 doses. Always consult the labelling for guidance.
There is nothing new in the concept of using lactobacillus species to improve gut health. People use them to help treat various conditions or to prevent them from occurring. What is new is, however, is the renewed interest in using probiotics for restoring and maintaining health. A genuine interest from the public is helping to fuel the desire. The mass publication of topical articles also feeds into the curiosity and keeps the momentum going. The message is loud and clear; people want a more “natural” approach to better health.
The good news is that there is no shortage of Lactobacillus products. You can find them in most health food stores or online. The bad news is the reliability, viable content and the general quality of some products is not always clear .
The best approach is to know what you're buying and where it comes from. Once you do that, it's just a case of sticking by what you trust.