Contirbutor: Kadakkal Radhakrishnan, MD
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From the supplements aisle to your child’s granola bars, yogurt and cereal, probiotics are popping up in more places than ever before. Probiotics are live microorganisms in certain yeasts – essentially beneficial bacteria – that are believed to be good for overall health, but more specifically, the digestive system.
Probiotics are available in some foods and dietary supplements, and they’re very similar to probiotics that exist naturally in the gut. Our gut harbors billions of bacteria, and the good bacteria is believed to overwhelm the unhealthy ones and keep us healthy.
Probiotics add another layer of good microorganisms to the already existing good ones. Although probiotics are not a digestive cure-all, they can be highly beneficial to kids and adults.
The benefits of probiotics
Although research still needs to be done on probiotics (since the ideal probiotic and its composition is not yet clearly defined), we do know that the beneficial bacteria that lives inside us is a necessary part of regulating our health.
So when the ratio of good bacteria is altered – for example, after a necessary use of antibiotics – probiotics can help replace the body with good bacteria.
If your child has an ear infection or diarrheal illness that calls for antibiotics, taking a probiotic can actually help shorten the symptoms. In addition, probiotics may keep your children healthy by decreasing the number of bacteria in the gut that can cause infections or inflammation.
The basic premise of using probiotics is to restore the relative population of good glut flora, which can promote optimal health.
So how can probiotics help your little one? For starters, they help relieve constipation, acid reflux, diarrhea symptoms and flatulence. Some research suggests they could also improve gut immunity and oral health, plus help manage eczema.
Other medical conditions where probiotics may have benefits include:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Antibiotic associated diarrhea
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Infectious diarrhea, including Clostridium difficile infection
It’s important to note that in the above conditions, probiotics should not be used as the primary treatment and should only be used alongside standard medical treatment.
Are probiotics safe?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates probiotics as a food product and not as a medicine, so probiotic products are not mandated to show that they’re safe or effective.
However, probiotics are generally safe. Most probiotics contain lactobacillus, bifidobacterium or saccharomyces – or sometimes, a combination of the three.
Although most products show the concentration of the ingredients, the exact quantity that would be delivered to the small and large intestine is unknown, and therefore, the ideal dose is unclear.
Because of this, I strongly urge parents to talk with their child’s pediatrician to discuss potential choices of probiotics before starting one. There are many probiotic supplements available over the counter, and a pediatrician can help you choose the right one.
How to pick a probiotic
Dietary probiotic supplements are available in capsules, tablets, powders and liquid extracts, and they each contain a specific type of probiotic. You can find these products at health food stores, vitamin shops and your local pharmacy or grocery store.
If you’re wary about your child taking a probiotic in supplement form, you can opt for foods that contain probiotics instead. Yogurt is one of the best sources of probiotics — just make sure the label says “live or active cultures”).
Other foods that contain a healthy dose of probiotics include sauerkraut, soft cheeses (like Gouda), pickles, tempeh and buttermilk.
Whether you decide to give your child probiotics in supplement or food form, again, remember to consult with a pediatrician first – and do your own research. Probiotics won’t cure any of your child’s ailments, but the supplement can provide major health benefits — making it worth the consideration.
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This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.