What the science says
Scientific understanding of probiotics and their potential for preventing and
treating health conditions is at an early stage, but moving ahead. In November
2005, a conference that was cofunded by the National Center for Complementary
and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and convened by the American Society for
Microbiology explored this topic.
According to the conference report, some uses of probiotics for which there
is some encouraging evidence from the study of specific probiotic formulations
are as follows:
- To treat diarrhea (this is the strongest area of evidence, especially for
diarrhea from rotavirus)
- To prevent and treat infections of the urinary tract or
female genital tract
- To treat irritable bowel syndrome
- To reduce recurrence of
- To shorten how long an intestinal infection lasts that is caused
by a bacterium called Clostridium difficile
- To prevent and treat pouchitis (a
condition that can follow surgery to remove the colon)
- To prevent and manage
atopic dermatitis (eczema) in children
The conference panel also noted that in
studies of probiotics as cures, any beneficial effect was usually low; a strong
placebo effect often occurs; and more research (especially in the form of large,
carefully designed clinical trials) is needed in order to draw firmer
Some other areas of interest to researchers on probiotics are
- What is going on at the molecular level with the bacteria themselves and how
they may interact with the body (such as the gut and its bacteria) to prevent
and treat diseases. Advances in technology and medicine are making it possible
to study these areas much better than in the past.
- Issues of quality. For
example, what happens when probiotic bacteria are treated or are added to
foods -- is their ability to survive, grow, and have a therapeutic effect altered?
- The best ways to administer probiotics for therapeutic purposes, as well as the
best doses and schedules.
- Probiotics' potential to help with the problem of
antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the gut.
- Whether they can prevent unfriendly
bacteria from getting through the skin or mucous membranes and traveling through
the body (e.g., which can happen with burns, shock, trauma, or suppressed