Harvard Men's Health Watch

Ask the doctor: Health benefits of probiotics

Q. Would you suggest I try taking a probiotic supplement for general colon health? I have a sensitive stomach and sometimes suffer from constipation.

A. Probiotics, the beneficial bacteria that live in our intestines and assist in digestion, have gained a lot of support lately. Each week, a new study appears describing health benefits or diseases associated with changes in the so-called microbiome—the diverse community of microorganisms each of us carries inside our body. Still, the benefits of adding probiotics to the intestinal tract are uncertain.

Probiotics have proved helpful in situations where the body's normal, healthy bacteria have been destroyed, such as after taking a powerful antibiotic. Small studies in people with irritable bowel syndrome have suggested that taking probiotics improves pain and diarrhea. The benefit in constipation is less certain, but it's reasonable for you to try taking a probiotic if you are interested.

No type of probiotic has been shown to be clearly superior, so the choices can be overwhelming. One problem is that research studies have used many different formulations. Most contain the bacteria Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium. Some people prefer to take a supplement as a pill, and others get probiotics from fermented dairy products, such as yogurt or kefir. You should take the probiotic daily for at least two or three weeks to decide if there is an effect.

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