Probiotics for Gastrointestinal Conditions: A Summary of the Evidence

Thad Wilkins, MD, MBA; Jacqueline Sequoia, MD, MPH

Disclosures

Am Fam Physician. 2017;96(3):170-178. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

Probiotics contain microorganisms, most of which are bacteria similar to the beneficial bacteria that occur naturally in the human gut. Probiotics have been widely studied in a variety of gastrointestinal diseases. The most-studied species include Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Saccharomyces. However, a lack of clear guidelines on when to use probiotics and the most effective probiotic for different gastrointestinal conditions may be confusing for family physicians and their patients. Probiotics have an important role in the maintenance of immunologic equilibrium in the gastrointestinal tract through the direct interaction with immune cells. Probiotic effectiveness can be species-, dose-, and disease-specific, and the duration of therapy depends on the clinical indication. There is high-quality evidence that probiotics are effective for acute infectious diarrhea, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, Clostridium difficile–associated diarrhea, hepatic encephalopathy, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, functional gastrointestinal disorders, and necrotizing enterocolitis. Conversely, there is evidence that probiotics are not effective for acute pancreatitis and Crohn disease. Probiotics are safe for infants, children, adults, and older patients, but caution is advised in immunologically vulnerable populations.

Introduction

Probiotics contain microorganisms, most of which are bacteria similar to the beneficial bacteria that occur naturally in the human gut. They are available over-the-counter (OTC) or by prescription and in a variety of forms such as capsules, packets, or food supplements. Although most probiotics are available without a prescription, there may be an advantage to patients with prescription drug coverage because probiotics may be a covered benefit. Probiotics have been widely studied in a variety of gastrointestinal (GI) diseases, and one in five Americans takes probiotics for digestive problems.[1] The most studied probiotics for human use belong to the Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, or Saccharomyces species.[2] This article focuses on probiotic use in infants, children, and adults with GI conditions, and it excludes probiotics for non-GI diseases.

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