The number of products containing probiotics and the interest in using them have grown dramatically in recent years.
The concept of probiotics, though, has been known by the medical community for over a hundred years.
Back in 1907, French pediatrician Henry Tissier noted that children with diarrhea had a low number of certain (“bifid”) bacteria in their bowel movements as compared to healthy children.
He postulated that giving these sick children these bacteria could help restore their microflora (the bacteria and other microscopic organisms that live in our guts) to a healthy state.
Probiotics are defined as supplements or foods that contain viable micro-organisms that cause alterations of the microflora of the host.
Prebiotics are defined as supplements or foods that contain a non-digestible food ingredient that selectively stimulates the favorable growth and/or activity of endogenous probiotic bacteria.
Synbiotics are foods that contain both probiotics and prebiotics (yogurt and human breast milk are two well-known examples).
Some types of yeast may also be considered probiotics.
These probiotics help us by crowding out potentially harmful bacteria that live in our gut. They also release substances that may help regulate how our gut works and help regulate our immune system.
There is scientific evidence that in healthy children probiotics can help treat acute viral gastroenteritis. Probiotics can also help prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea in healthy children.
Even though more research needs to be done, there is some potential that probiotics can help treat other conditions in otherwise healthy children.
In some premature infants, probiotics could help prevent necrotizing enterocolitis (a very serious intestinal wall infection).
It is also possible that probiotics could help prevent the development of atopic dermatitis in infants, and decrease infant colic symptoms.
Probiotics may also help treat Helicobacter pylori infections, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome in otherwise healthy children.
Though found in some readily-available forms such as yogurt, there are some safety concerns with probiotics. They could potentially harm children who are immuno-compromised, chronically or serious ill, or have indwelling medical devices.
It would be wise to consult a health care practitioner before giving them to any of these children.
Dr. Charles Ison is a University of Kentucky graduate who has practiced in his hometown of Lexington since 1993. He is a partner in Pediatric and Adolescent Associates.