Do Probiotics Have Side Effects?

A spoonful of salt or kefir grains with the title "Do Probiotics Have Side Effects?"

If you take any interest in the health and nutrition world, I’m sure you’ve heard of probiotics. Going by online reviews, it seems like they can cure almost any ailment! However, you must not forget that caveat emptor or “buyer beware” still applies.

Unlike pharmaceutical medicines, most probiotic pills for oral consumption are classed as foods rather than drugs. This means that they don’t need to meet the same rigorous standards as big pharma. In that case, can we trust them? What are probiotics risks and side effects? I’m going to explain everything you need to know in this post.

Aren’t Bacteria Harmful?

I have already published many articles explaining the basics of probiotic supplements and how they work. To sum it up – probiotics are beneficial microorganisms such as yeasts and bacteria, which are consumed via food or pill/liquid supplements.

I wouldn’t blame you if you’re a bit reluctant to start putting bacteria into your body – eating them, no less. Sounds a little gross. Yes, bacteria do cause disease. However, there are thousands (if not millions!) of varieties of bacteria. Some of them make you sick but some of them can actually help your body.

We already have a community of microorganisms living in harmony with our bodies. You’ll find them mainly in your gut but also on the surface of your skin, in the vagina and pretty much everywhere. This community is called your microbiome or natural flora.

A graphic depicting bacteria in the mouth.

Do Probiotics Really Work?

I must emphasise that research on the microbiome and probiotics is still in its infancy. We are still unsure of the exact role microorganisms play in our health but what we do know sounds promising.

That said, don’t believe everything you read about probiotics. There are a few health conditions where probiotics have been scientifically proven to relieve symptoms. However, the studies in question usually only apply to one or two specific strains of bacteria and can’t be extrapolated to every probiotic supplement you can find at the health store.

Some conditions which have been proven to benefit from probiotics are diarrhea associated with antibiotics, (source) traveller’s diarrhea, (source) inflammatory bowel disease, (source) lactose intolerance, (source) allergies (source) and dental health. (source) That’s not to say that probiotics won’t help with other issues, but research is lacking at present.

Are Probiotics Safe?

Generally speaking, probiotics are safe. For a healthy person, they’re unlikely to cause any issues other than mild gastrointestinal side effects. If you’re concerned, talk to your doctor or pharmacist before starting a probiotic. He will be able to assess your individual situation and recommend the best probiotic strain based on scientific research.

There are, however, a few people who should avoid probiotics completely. If you have a compromised immune system, you shouldn’t take probiotics unless instructed to do so by your physician. Things which cause a compromised immune system include autoimmune disorders or treatments such as chemotherapy and immunosuppressive drugs.

Caution should be exercised when giving probiotics to children, as well. Children under one year old in particular do not yet have fully developed immune systems. Unless your child’s pediatrician has directed you to use a particular probiotic, always check with your child’s doctor before use.

The elderly may also have adverse reactions to probiotics and be at a higher risk of infection due to compromised immune systems. Probiotics risks and side effects may be magnified in older adults.

A broken capsule under a magnifying glass.

Common Probiotic Side Effects

Probably the most common side effect reported from the use of probiotics is mild digestive discomfort. This includes gas and diarrhea. These should resolve after a week or two but if you find the side effects particularly severe or troublesome, you may want to try a different brand.

There have been concerns about more serious side effects such as systemic infections caused by probiotics. This risk mainly applies to immunocompromised people.

How to Avoid Probiotic Side Effects

Follow the directions and dosages found on the packaging of your probiotic to help avoid unpleasant reactions. To avoid digestive discomfort with probiotics, experiment with the timing of your dose. Although probiotics are most effective when taken on an empty stomach, taking it with food may ease gas and stomach upset. You can also try taking a lower dose or taking the pill every second day instead of daily.

If you’re concerned about probiotic safety, stick to a supplement containing the more widely studied strains of bacteria, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.

Be wary of companies who make miracle cure claims about their products. Purchase a probiotic that is made by a reputable company in a GMP (good manufacturing practice for pharmaceuticals) and FDA certified facility to help ensure quality. Check with third party testing companies like Lab Door to see how a supplement stacks up before purchase.

A doctor holding a sing saying 'Side Effects'

Final Thoughts on Probiotics Risks and Side Effects

All in all, probiotics are considered safe and potentially helpful to the average person. Side effects are usually mild if there are any at all. As long as you don’t have a compromised immune system or other condition which contraindicates probiotic use, I believe it’s generally a good idea to give them a try.

If you have any other questions about the side effects and risks of probiotics or any other supplement, please get in touch and I’ll see if I can help you out.

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