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Should my child take Probiotics? What exactly are they, anyway?

Probiotiocs are “good” bacteria that normally colonize the digestive tract. Lack of these bacteria can lead to digestive disruption and symptoms such as chronic diarrhea and/or constipation.  The “good” bacteria also happen to play a large role in our overall health, since the digestive tract contains over 40% of our body’s immune system.

Several studies have shown the benefits of probiotics for people of all ages ranging from healthy digestion to immune support. One study demostrated that children who took a certain probiotic blend daily were less likely to catch seasonal colds and flus compared to their peers and also had significantly shorter illnesses if they did get sick. Other studies have demostrated the benefits of taking probiotics during and after antibiotic therapy in order to prevent dysbiosis (overgrowth of bad bacteria and/or yeast that leads to diarrhea and other digestive symptoms).

While there are a vast number of probiotics to choose from available at your pharmacy, grocery store, supplement store, or online, there is no guarantee that the product you get will actually be helpful. There are only a handful of brands/formulas that have actually been clinically proven to be effective and have rigorous quality control measures to ensure that the products are not contaminated. When it comes to giving probiotics to children and infants, I recommend sticking with high quality products that are proven to work even if it costs a bit more money.

Probiotics can contain a variety of strains of bacteria, but the clinically proven formulas only contain very specific strains. Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidus are two examples of bacteria used in many formulas, but the strains of these bacteria used by different manufacturers can vary greatly. One of the biggest differences is how the strains are grown or from what species they are originally cultured. The strains cultured from humans are generally more likely to colonize (grow in) the human digestive tract compared to, say, strains cultured from pigs or cows. Strains that are grown on media contianing dairy proteins may be contaminated and cause allergic reactions in people sensitive to dairy or infants who have not yet had dairy introduced into their diets.

What about yogurt or other cultured foods that contain these bacteria? While cultured dairy is a good dietary source of these bacteria, the amount of living bacteria in a serving of most cultured foods is much, much less than what is contained in a quality supplement. Many people have intolerances to the foods themselves, which  makes dietary consumption of probiotics a bit of a challenge.

Good probiotics should be kept refrigerated to maintain their potency. Many of the high quality supplements will contain twice the label potency if kept at a temperature below 40 degrees until the expiration date. Freeze-dried powders kept at room temperature can vary greatly in their potency (independent lab tests of some over the counter brands showed some products contained zero living organisms of the strains listed on the label and some products were even contaminated with pathogenic “bad” bacteria). Clinically proven products are generally more expensive; however, some may be available through prescription and covered by prescription benefits, flexible spending accounts, or health savings accounts.

I recommend probiotic supplements for most of my pediatric patients, including infants. If you have questions about which product to give your child, you should consult a licensed Naturopathic Doctor or other Healthcare professional familiar with using probiotics.

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