Getting Friendly with Your Gut Bacteria ...
Probiotics, or the use of beneficial bacteria, are an exciting concept in the prevention and treatment of various childhood conditions. Definitive evidence on efficacy and safety is somewhat lacking, but there have been several good studies looking at probiotics like lactobacillus and active-culture yogurts in the prevention and treatment of diarrhea. The weight of the current evidence supports the use of probiotics in acute-onset childhood diarrhea, and their use with antibiotics to prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea. In addition, the use of probiotic formulas (available in Europe for awhile, and now in the US) may reduce the number of diarrheal illnesses for children in day-care settings. Some small studies suggest that probiotics may also help prevent colds, colic, thrush, yeasty diaper rashes, non-specific tummy aches, and urinary tract infections.
What's especially interesting is the idea that establishing a healthy gut bacterial ecosystem early in infancy may steer the development of the immune system away from hyper-reactive "atopic" conditions like eczema, asthma, and seasonal allergies; this could be very useful in families where there's a family history of these conditions. The research here is early and somewhat conflicting, but this is an area to watch.
The bacteria that colonize your intestines set up shop early on, and the bacteria found in hospital environments don't seem to be the healthiest to be colonized with. It may prove to be wise for pregnant women to consume active-culture yogurt, kefir, or probiotics, and to supplement babies with these healthy bacteria. It should be emphasized that the research on this topic is in its infancy, and that definitive safety and efficacy information is not available. Furthermore, research has not defined what strains of probiotics work best (or at all!) for various conditions. But so far, we have not seen serious side effects except in significantly immuno-suppressed children.
As far as yogurts are concerned, not all are created equal. In kids from 8mo-2yo and in malnourished adoptees, full fat is the way to go. And check the label for sugar content - some of those brands are sugar bombs. For promotion and maintenance of healthy gut bacteria, serving yogurt daily is a safe, time-tested, granny-approved, and easy-to-find way to go. But for treatment purposes or early in infancy, you might consider probiotic supplements, which can deliver many more of these healthy bacteria than a container of yogurt.
Like any unregulated "nutriceutical", it can be hard to find reliable, standardized products, and even harder to get them covered by your insurance. Probiotics, in particular, do not always contain healthy, viable strains of bacteria.
Culturelle supplements use Lactobacillus GG, one of the most studied strains, and are easy to find over-the-counter in most drugstores. Lactinex packets are available by prescription in some pharmacies. Nature's Way is another easy-to-find brand that sells a blend of probiotic strains, included lactobacillus reuteri, which was used in the recent infant colic study. The Biogaia drops used in that study are now available in many drugstores as well. Another excellent brand of probiotic supplements that's available locally in Seattle is the Pharmax HLC line.
You'll also want to think about prebiotics - foods and supplements that help these healthy bacteria thrive. These can be found naturally in breast milk, honey (not for use <1yo), garlic, onions, leeks, wheat, bananas, asparagus, artichokes, and chicory root. Supplements of fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) are also available, and Pharmax includes them in many of their probiotic formulations.
What's fun about this topic from the adoption medicine perspective is that the Eastern European docs love probiotics. "Dysbacteriosis" is a frequently seen diagnosis, often treated with "ferments and enzymes", and while you'll still want to rule out parasites like giardia and other malabsoptive causes of funny poops, I am convinced that children raised in hospitals and institutions have less healthy gut bacteria. In Russia, you can even get yogurt fortified with the power of Cosmonaut intestinal bacteria! Cosmonauts being the pinnacle of Russian health and fortitude, I suppose. Best not to think about how they collect said bacteria ...