That’s a great question. First, let me clarify what probiotics are in the first place, since they seem to be making a comeback these days. The concept of probiotics dates all the way back to the early 20th century to a Russian scientist by the name of Elie Metchnikoff. He discovered that by drinking fermented milk, one would consume healthful bacteria that would prevent harmful bacteria from growing in the intestine. During the past 100 years, scientists and researchers have indeed proven that there are healthful bacteria (sometimes known as “friendly bacteria”) that can be reintroduced into your body to help offset digestive imbalance. Probiotics are defined by Roy Fuller, a leading expert in gut microecology (bet you didn’t have that major in your college, eh?), as “a live microbial feed supplement which beneficially affects the host animal by improving its intestinal microbial balance.”
You might have heard of probiotics that are found in food, such as yogurt (that’s what it means when it says “live, active cultures” on the yogurt container — not that there’s a village of South Americans doing the Cha-Cha in there). But you can also take probiotic supplements, which are becoming increasingly popular, as people use them to combat problems of the digestive tract, such as diarrhea, constipation or stomach upset. People also often take probiotics when they are prescribed antibiotics for an infection. This is because the antibiotics don’t only work to get rid of the bad bacteria; they sometimes get rid of some of the good bacteria too. That’s where probiotics come in: Research has shown that they can help balance things out a bit — right the sails, as it were.
So are probiotics safe for kids? I’ve got to be honest — before I wrote this article, I didn’t think about it much. I’m one of those people (for better or for worse) who takes what my pediatrician tells me as the Holy Grail. That being said, my pediatrician actually recommends that my son take probiotic supplements every time he’s on antibiotics for an ear infection (which is about once a month these days — that’s a whole other story). So yes, probiotics are probably safe, just like they are safe for other healthful people.
On the other hand, in people with immune-suppressed systems, probiotics can occasionally cause sepsis, where bacteria gets into the bloodstream and can cause serious harm, according to a 2006 article in the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently performed a study that showed modest efficacy of probiotics to treat short-term gastrointestinal upset, but did not find enough evidence to warrant taking probiotics routinely.
So what to do? If your child is otherwise healthy, and is having a bout with diarrhea or is about to start a course of antibiotics, talk to your pediatrician about trying a probiotic supplement (there are ones out there just for kids) to see if it may help. If neither of those cases apply though, a probiotic supplement is probably unnecessary. Bottom line? Though probiotics might be able to help maintain a good digestive balance in the short term, more research still needs to be done to determine their safety and efficacy over the long haul.
Related healthy eating story on MNN: Is eating too much yogurt bad for you?
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