Probiotics & Chemo

Chemotherapy attacks cells that divide rapidly. Although this primarily affects cancer cells, healthy human cells, including those in the digestive tract, are also affected. Probiotics are supplements that boost the levels of beneficial microorganisms in the digestive tract. They help relieve some of the side effects of chemotherapy, but may also be dangerous if chemotherapy weakens the immune system.

A man offers pills to his friend who's in bed with chemotherapy. (Image: KatarzynaBialasiewicz/iStock/Getty Images)

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are live organisms that improve health. The majority of probiotic supplements are beneficial bacteria, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, though yeast, such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae are considered probiotics, as well. Although the bacteria used in probiotics supplements may be different than those normally found in your digestive tract, they are similar enough to provide the same benefits.

Probiotics and Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy often damages the cells that line the intestinal tract. The damage causes inflammation, pain and diarrhea, as the intestines no longer absorb nutrients efficiently. Probiotic bacteria help the digestive tract break down food and may also help intestinal cells heal. Researchers reported in a 2009 article in the "Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition," that probiotics relieved the diarrhea associated with chemotherapy in breast cancer patients.

Chemotherapy and Probiotic Risks

Although probiotics help reduce some side effects associated with chemotherapy, consuming probiotics during therapy may pose risk. Chemotherapy weakens the immune system because it damages the bone marrow where immune cells are made. Although the bacteria used in probiotic supplements are generally not infectious, if your immune system is compromised, these bacteria may spread to other parts of your body, leading to blood or heart infections, according to a 2003 article in the "Clinical Infectious Diseases."

To Be On the Safe Side

The use of probiotics for treating diarrhea in chemotherapy patients is a new approach to this problem, and more research needs to be done to determine which strains are most effective. Because of the potential risks, talk to your doctor before taking probiotic supplements.

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