You’ve probably heard about probiotics. They are often mentioned as a way to re-sync GI tracts that are going haywire. Many people swear by them and won’t leave for a trip without them. Some people take them daily whether they are traveling or not. Are probiotics as effective as these people profess? Should you invest in probiotics before your next trip?
What are probiotics?
The word “probiotics” literally means good bacteria. We tend to think of bacteria as a cause of illness, but your body is also host to strains of beneficial bacteria. Many of these beneficial bacteria live in your intestines. Is is when your GI tract becomes home to more bad bacteria than good that you experience illnesses like traveler’s diarrhea.
Why take probiotics?
Probiotics have been shown to help relieve certain forms of acute diarrhea. They have also shown to promote healthy digestion and they have been an effective tool in treating many cases of irritable bowel syndrome.
The idea behind taking probiotics as a traveler is to populate your gut with beneficial bacteria so that when your body inevitably faces the foreign bacteria of a strange land and a strange cuisine, it is prepared. It is like pre-arming your GI tract, setting up your defenses in advance so that your body can handle a bacterial attack.
Do probiotics really work?
As this article from the Washington Post points out, there is a lot of data suggesting probiotics can treat certain illnesses and conditions (like acute diarrhea caused by antibiotics), but there is not a lot of evidence supporting probiotic use by travelers or otherwise healthy people. That said, there simply haven’t been extensive studies conducted on probiotic use as a preventative measure for intestinal ailments like traveler’s diarrhea.
While there have not been a significant number of scientific studies, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of probiotics. Have a look at this round-up to read some accounts of travelers who swear by probiotics.
What’s more, probiotics can only help you, not hurt you. While it’s unproven scientifically whether they are effective to the extent that some people claim, it is clear that probiotics promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. The science says we don’t know how much good the beneficial bacteria are doing, but considering that probiotics are a relatively low-cost investment, they would seem to be a prudent addition to your travel health arsenal.
Whether you plan on taking probiotics as a trip-long preventative measure, you should definitely pack them to restore the beneficial bacteria in your gut after you take an antibiotic. For example if you take cipro for traveler’s diarrhea or if you take doxycycline as a malaria prophylactic.
How do I get probiotics?
There are variety of strains of beneficial bacteria that you can take as a probiotic. Acidophilus is the largest class of such bacteria and it is lactobacillus acidophilus that you often find in yogurt and fermented soy products like miso. While it is commonly suggested that you can supply yourself with probiotics from eating yogurt alone, many of the beneficial bacteria delivered by yogurt will succumb to your stomach acid before reaching your intestines.
There are a number of probiotic products on the market that promise to deliver a concentrated dose of beneficial bacteria with a mechanism that will hold up to the harsh conditions created by our stomach acid, but few of them actually deliver.
One product we really believe in is Enzymatic Therapy Acidophilus Pearls. These capsules are reasonably priced at around $20 for 90 days worth of probiotics. Most importantly, they deliver intact probiotics to your gut in high quantities. They are also one of the few probiotics that don’t use dairy products (other probiotics typically have lactose in them). If you ask us, there is not a better probiotic product on the market right now.
Have you used probiotics before? Please share your experience in the comments below. Also, feel free to recommend any other probiotic products you’ve found to be effective.
UPDATE: I continue to use probiotics as I travel through West Africa and I have noted less and less stomach problems. I also have had fewer instances of severe traveler’s diarrhea (cases in which I would resort to an antibiotic like cipro). Once again, I cannot be sure that this is directly due to the probiotics I am taking or if it is due to something else. In any case, it is clear that they are not hurting and if anything, they are giving my gut flora a bit of a boost.
Finally, there is encouraging information in this report from Harvard Health. While more studies are needed, several reviews of existing data are promising. Considering the high risk-reward ratio of using probiotics, this information is very helpful.
Lastly, many people have asked us when to take probiotics, before, during or after meals? Thankfully, there has recently been a study done to address this very issue. Using a simulated stomach and digestive system, the study found that the optimal time to take a probiotic is roughly 30 minutes before a meal or during the meal itself. Taking the probiotic after a meal had dramatically worse results. So, there you have it.