Q. I have chronic diarrhea because of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Should I take probiotics?
A. Probiotics are live microbes that are taken in capsule or powder form. They’re also available in some yogurt products. Probiotics are thought to help with intestinal problems by restoring bacterial balance in the gut and possibly by affecting the immune system. Many strains of bacteria and a strain of yeast are used as probiotics, but they don’t all have the same effectiveness.
Two strains of probiotics have shown some promise in alleviating diarrhea resulting from IBS—Lactobacillus plantarum and Bifidobacterium infantis. If you decide to try probiotics, look for products with these bacterial strains. Also, consider trying preparations that have been tested in people with IBS, such as Align (B. infantis), Culturelle (Lactobacillus rhaminosis GG), or VSL #3 (a mixture of eight strains). If you choose yogurt as a way to try probiotics, check to be sure the brand contains live or active cultures.
Taking probiotics does have a few downsides. The FDA does not regulate these products, so manufacturers do not have to prove that the contents on the label are in the bottle. Some probiotics are expensive, and these preparations typically are not covered by insurance. Also, if you have a weakened immune system because you have another chronic illness, are taking steroids, or are undergoing chemotherapy, check with your doctor before trying probiotics.
— Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D.
Editor in Chief, Harvard Women’s Health Watch