The Side Effects of Probiotics: What to Watch for, When to Talk to Your Doctor & When You Should Say No

For those of us who struggle with digestive problems and immune systems that always seem to be on the mend, the trending area of probiotics gives us hope that there’s a safe way to improve our health in these areas.

Gulp down some kefir, fill up on some yogurt and we should be good to go, right? Well, as we pointed out last week, that’s actually the case with many people. We research a lot of shady supplements, so it’s nice to write about probiotics because they’re like the hero in a world full of villains.

But like most heroes these days, probiotics aren’t perfect. Though they’re really safe (in most cases), there are situations where taking probiotics can create some dangerous side effects.

So, let’s take a deeper look into the world of probiotics and answer the following questions: Should you consult with a doctor when taking them? What are the side effects? Are there dangers to taking probiotics? Who should take it, and when should you stop taking it?

Should My Doctor Know I’m Taking Probiotics?

For all the good things we’ve written about probiotics, we always try to remind our readers that you should talk with your doctor anytime you decide to introduce a new supplement or, in this case, bacteria into your diet.

Your doctor knows your body just as good as you do, in some cases, and can help you see how taking the good bacteria in probiotic-packed foods can affect your digestive system. More importantly, he or she can let you know if any of the stuff you’re taking at the moment (medications, vitamins) will have interactions with probiotics.

Now, it’s easy to say that getting into all these details with your doctor is overkill. But the truth is, probiotics are a big family of bacteria. There are so many variations within that family that it’s always the safe play to sit down with your family doctor and soak in his or her insights.

We also found this article from Mayo Clinic registered and licensed dietician Katherine Zeratsky, who said that, “if you’re considering taking supplements, check with your doctor to be sure that they’re right for you.”

The Side Effects of Probiotics Aren’t That Bad for the Average Person

We’ve made a point to praise probiotics for their minimal side effects. These little, healthy bacteria really are a breath of fresh air in a murky world of wonder pills and overhyped over-the-counter treatments.

But you should be warned … there can be certain side effects associated with probiotics.

When you swallow a probiotic supplement pill, for example, all those microscopic organisms race down your throat and into your stomach and small intestines. They absolutely love it down there; it’s their home.

Now, let’s pause here for a second for a moment of reflection. Your gut (stomach, intestines) has a delicate balance of bacteria. If that balance gets upset, you can come down with intestinal ailments as well as bloating and distention. Not fun.

If you add big doses of good bacteria to that balance, it’s going to get a little uneven for a few days. Think of it as all those bacteria in there getting used to their new probiotic neighbors.

Dr. Patricia Hibberd, a professor of pediatrics at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston, to not be so surprised if you deal with gas and bloating. But, according to her interview with The Huffington Post in July 2014, Hibberd said “these symptoms are usually mild, and they generally go away after two to three days.”

When are Probiotics Dangerous and Who Can They Hurt?

You might be a little scared when you see “dangerous” and “probiotics” in the same sentence. But keep in mind that often the real dangers of probiotics are based on the immune system and health issues of the people taking the bacteria, not the bacteria themselves.

This is why the dangers of bacteria and the “who can they hurt” questions are, most of the time, one in the same.

People with immune system disorders shouldn’t take probiotics

In 2006, a trio of doctors from Australia published a very interesting (but very scientific) journal article about the side effects of probiotics. One of their cautions was about patients with compromised immune systems (patients going through chemotherapy, radiation, etc.).

In these patients, probiotics have, in some cases, caused sepsis, which is a bacterial infection of the blood that can lead to multiple organ failure and death

Now, it’s important to point out that all the cases of sepsis mentioned in this study occurred in people with compromised immune systems, not in healthy people.

Pregnant women should be cautious about taking probiotics

The same study that talked about sepsis in patients with bad immune systems also pointed out that the probiotic Lactobacillus could, theoretically endanger pregnant women. The reasoning is pretty complex but we’ll make it easy for you.

Lactobacillus suppresses a substance in the mom’s body that helps her keep the fetus alive. The key here is that this idea is a theory and has not been proven.

Infants with short bowel syndrome shouldn’t be taking probiotics

In 2004, a pair of doctors from a Washington Army medical center published a study that talked about two cases of premature infants with short bowel syndrome. They found that both infants ended up battling sepsis after taking a regiment of probiotics.

Thankfully, their doctors realized the probiotics were the source of the blood infection. Both babies survived, but, as the doctors pointed out, physicians and parents alike should be wary of giving probiotics to babies with compromised immune systems or intestinal issues.

When Should You Stop Taking Probiotics?

Everything we’ve read about probiotics points to two different kinds of people who take probiotics – the healthy and the sick.

So, in both of these situations there are, based on the research we’ve done, different warning signs that could point to serious and not-so-serious situations.

Healthy people should worry when side effects last longer than three days

It’s normal for healthy patients to have side effects when they first start probiotics. But think of these side effects more as a transitionary phase and not so much a reaction or a bad sign.

However, if bloating and gas last longer than a couple of days, give your doctor a call. Also, if you start to feel pain in your gut, see blood in your stool or any other things that are not normal, contact your doctor immediately.

Sick patients should stop as soon as they sense that something is wrong

It’s important to for you to know that probiotics can have some extremely devastating side effects for people who are undergoing immune-compromising treatments for cancer and other severe disease. In these cases, we don’t recommend that you take probiotics.

However, we know that patients sometimes make their own decisions about their treatments. If have a compromised immune system and you do decide to take probiotics, the moment you notice something out of the ordinary with your digestive system, stop taking probiotics and immediately tell your doctor about your symptoms.

For us, the same logic applies for people who may not be severely ill but who are sick. A typical situation goes like this: you become sick, you hear a friend talk about probiotics or you read an alternative medicine site that hails the wonders of probiotics and you head to grocery store to pick up some supplements or probiotic-rich foods.

If you start up probiotics while you’re sick and your situation worsens or you start having problems with your stomach or intestines, stop and tell your doctor. A probiotics experiment isn’t worth a more serious condition when you’re already sick.

Our Final Thoughts About the Side Effects of Probiotics

One thing to keep in mind about our discussions here is that probiotics research is sort of a pendulum situation. The research swings from the “they’re good for healthy people and people with digestive problems” to “they’re bad for really sick people and pregnant women”. There’s not much middle ground here.

So, as you decide whether or not you should take probiotics, keep this in mind. You might find yourself somewhere in the middle ground between really sick and really healthy. The bad side effects of probiotics might scare you, or they might not.

Whether you’re healthy, sick, or really sick, our advice will always be the same: talk with your doctor about whether probiotics are a wise choice for you.

In the meantime, we think you’ll really enjoy some of the articles we’ve written about probiotics. Read about who should take probiotics, how to take them and how safe they are. You can also check out our Probiotics 101 article.

  • December 18, 2015

J.R. Duren

J.R. is an award winning journalist who uncovers the hard truths about personal finance, health and fitness through in-depth research and interviews with experts.


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