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Probiotics do ease gut problems, several studies show

By Rachael Rettner


Probiotics, or "good bacteria," may lower levels of inflammation in the body, which could benefit patients who have inflammatory diseases such as ulcerative colitis, a new study says.

Inflammation normally helps your body fight off infection, but chronically high levels of it may cause swelling and pain and damage tissues. Psoriasis, ulcerative colitis and chronic fatigue syndrome are all disease in which inflammation is thought to play a role.

In the new study, patients with one of these conditions who took the probiotic bacteria B. infantis for eight weeks had lower levels of inflammation compared with those who took a placebo. And healthy people who took probiotics also saw a reduction in inflammation compared with those who took a placebo.

The results suggest that probiotics may lower levels of inflammation, regardless of the affliction, the researchers said. However, it's still not clear whether probiotics can actually help with symptoms of these diseases, experts say.

"It would be too soon to be able to say people with psoriasis or chronic fatigue syndrome would feel a lot better after taking this [probiotic]," said Gregor Reid, a microbiologists at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, who was not involved in the study. "In theory it should," but studies haven't shown this, he said.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University College Cork in Ireland, will be presented this week at the American College of Gastroenterology's (ACG) annual meeting in Washington, D.C. It was funded by the biotechnology company Alimentary Health Ltd.

The results may seem to conflict with other research that shows probiotics ramp up, not tone down, our immune system responses. But Reid said it's possible for the bacteria to do both.

"I don’t think there's anything that bacteria can't do, just about," Reid said. "We are essentially walking bacterial bodies. They're affecting everything that we do."

The study adds to evidence that probiotics can help treat the bowel disease ulcerative colitis, said Dr. Raymond Cross, a gastroenterologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. However, the bacteria may help those with mild or moderate forms of the disease, and not severe forms of it, Cross said.

Probiotics may also help people who need to take antibiotics for an extended time.

Another study presented at the ACG meeting showed taking probiotics before starting antibiotics reduced the risk of developing antibiotic-associated diarrhea by about 60 percent, said study researcher Dr. Rabin Rahmani, a gastroenterologist at Maimonides Medical Center in New York. Rahmani and colleagues reviewed 22 studies involving more than 3,000 patients who took probiotics for an average of 1.5 weeks.

While gastroenterologists are beginning to recommend probiotics for disorders such as ulcerative colitis and antibiotic-associated diarrhea, is not clear exactly which bacteria, or what dose, is most beneficial, Cross said. Researchers should investigate this so doctors know the best way to prescribe these bacteria to their patients, he said.