Probiotics are microorganisms that offer health benefits to their host. The condition of the human gut is something that people are now starting to get serious about. We understand today how the gut is the epicenter of an individual's physical and mental wellbeing. Because of this, there has been considerable interest in recent years for probiotic foods and supplements. There are now millions of people the world over who consume probiotics on a daily basis for their recognized health benefits.
For the most part, health experts consider probiotics completely safe to use. However, there are three areas of concern for some people on the safety of probiotics. These are:
- The incidence of disease, like bacteremia or endocarditis
- Toxic or metabolic effects on the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract or GIT)
- Transfer of antibiotic resistance in the gastrointestinal flora
How concerned should we be about the safety of probiotic usage? Well, there have been lots of well-controlled clinical trials on their use over the years. The general consensus is that probiotics are perfectly safe to use for most healthy people .
In this piece we take a look at the two most common of these bacteria, lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, and assess their safety.
Lactobacillus Safety Concerns
The vast majority of people can take in lactobacillus without any issues or unpleasant side effects. This includes babies and toddlers. The minority who do experience some side effects may feel a little intestinal gas or bloating. Lactobacillus is also safe for women to use inside the vaginal area.
There are some special precautions and warnings for the following three areas:
- Pregnancy and breast-feeding
- Weakened immune system
- Short bowel syndrome
Let's take a look at each of these in turn.
Pregnancy and Breast-Feeding
Doctors do not advise women against using lactobacillus during pregnancy or breast-feeding. In fact, pregnant and breast-feeding women do use Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG supplements quite safely. Because of this, they are considered potentially safe to use. The experts always reserve a little room for caution.
It's important to point out that there are other types of lactobacillus too. These other types have not undergone any clinical trials for pregnancy and breast-feeding. Because of this, their safety is unknown, hence the warning of “potential harm.” Remember too that probiotics are classed as food not medicine. This means they are not generally prescribed by doctors, and nor do they undergo the same rigorous testing that medicines have to go through. People are free to take probiotics as and when they choose to. This alone indicates their general safety.
Weakened Immune System
There is concern that lactobacillus from supplements might not agree with people who have weakened immune systems. The worry is that the live bacteria could grow too fast and potentially trigger diseases. It is rare, but not unheard of, which is why it's better for people with weakened immune systems to err on the side of caution. If in doubt, be sure to talk to a medical professional before making any decisions.
People with a weakened immune system include those with HIV/AIDS. It also includes those who have taken medicines to prevent rejection of a transplanted organ, as two examples.
Short Bowel Syndrome
Short bowel syndrome (SBS) is a malabsorption disorder. It occurs when there's been a surgical removal of a person's small intestine. Those with SBS need to be cautious of lactobacillus. The reason is because they have a higher chance of developing lactobacillus infections than other people. Anyone with this condition should talk to a medical professional before deciding on supplements.
Finally, there are a couple of cautions for taking lactobacillus with other drugs. These include immunosuppressants and antibiotic drugs. Immunosuppressants are a class of drugs that suppress or lessen the strength of the body's immune system .
In general, lactobacillus and other probiotic supplements are not only safe but effective too. They're used by people all the time to treat acute infectious and to help maintain a healthy gut.
OK, let us now look at the second of the most common probiotics, Bifidobacterium.
Bifidobacteria Safety Concerns
Bifidobacteria, like lactobacilli, are considered safe for adults and children when taken orally. Some people may experience mild side effects such as an upset tummy and maybe some bloating and gas. Most people though will not experience any notable side effects.
Pregnancy and Breast-Feeding
Although bifidobacteria is thought to be safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women, there is no hard data to support this. Therefore, pregnant or breast-feeding women are advised not take bifidobacteria supplements during this time.
Weakened Immune System
The problem with probiotics and people with weak immune systems is that the growth can be too fast and too much. This is something which may lead to infections. There is no evidence to suggest this happens specifically with bifidobacteria. However, there have been a few rare cases involving other probiotic species like lactobacillus (see above). Because of the unknown, anyone with a weakened immune system should not take bifidobacteria. Or at least they should wait until they have consulted a medical professional .
In general, bifidobacterium is safe to take for the majority of people. They're also effective at preventing and treating all kinds of ills and for maintaining good overall health. Bifidobacterium may well be safe for others in the potentially “vulnerable groups” above, but more research needs doing before this can be determined. Side effects of bifidobacterium and probiotic in general, are rare.