Probiotics are bacteria which have beneficial health effects when used for certain health conditions. One common use of probiotics is in the treatment of gastrointestinal ailments such as inflammatory bowel disease, some types of colitis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a condition that is poorly understood, and the treatment options for this condition are limited. Some probiotics may be helpful in treating the symptoms of IBS, but the research on which probiotic works best shows only one probiotic with clear benefits.
Most probiotics are bacteria that are found naturally in the gut, but which can be consumed when additional concentrations of probiotics are needed. Probiotics maintain a healthy balance in the biological and biochemical environment of the gut by interfering with disease-causing bacteria or fungi and by reducing inflammation. Common probiotics that are contained in various yogurts and other dairy products--notably kefir--include specific species of Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Streptococcus and/or Pediacoccus. Lactobacillus acidophilus, for example, is one of the better known probiotics.
Many studies have been conducted evaluating the effects of probiotics on a variety of conditions. There is some evidence that a certain probiotic bacteria, Bifidobacterium infantis, may be effective in treating the symptoms of IBS. Specifically, Bifidobacterium infantis helps reduce abdominal pain/distension, bloating and difficulty with bowel movements. B. infantis is commercially available in pure form (no other probiotics in the capsule) under the brand name Align or in combination with a variety of other probiotics under the brand name VSL 3. Neither product requires a prescription as probiotics are considered "food" by the Food and Drug Administration.
Probiotics are living organisms, and so a few cautions are in order. Probiotics are usually not appropriate for someone with an impaired immune system. People who are undergoing treatment for cancer, those who have immune disorders or those with a significant infection should not use probiotics due to the risk of infection. Also, probiotics should not be prepared in the area where someone has an intravenous (IV) line in place, which is quite common in hospitals. Because probiotics often come in powdered form, preparing them can introduce the organism into the air, and surrounding surfaces can become contaminated. While probiotics are generally very safe when used appropriately, a "harmless" probiotic in the gut can cause significant problems if it is introduced into the bloodstream (through an IV line, for example).