Up until last year, the only thing which I knew about probiotics are that they are “good” bacteria which some people take to improve gut health. I began to see more and more posts about probiotics on the Celiac forums and I became curious. I asked my primary care physician if I should be taking probiotics for my Celiac Disease and he said no. I asked my gastroenterologist if I should be taking them and he also said no. I did not heed their advice and went to a local health foods store to buy one anyway. I told the nutritionist that I was gluten free due to Celiac Disease and was sold one that contained barley grass as an ingredient! At this point I was about 4 weeks postpartum and had a screaming baby and toddler at the health foods store with me when I made my purchase (so was a tad bit distracted). Fortunately, I was able to return the gluten-filled probiotic, and since then I have learned quite a bit.
Probiotics are healthy bacteria which keep the microflora (bacterial balance) of our digestive systems intact and prevent overgrowth of “bad” bacteria. The normal human GI tract contains 400+ types of probiotic bacteria. The largest group of probiotic bacteria in the intestine is lactic acid bacteria, of which Lactobacillus acidophilus, is the best known. Probiotics are found naturally in certain foods, such as yogurt, and are available as dietary supplements. Probiotics are often prescribed alongside antibiotics to prevent the depletion of “good” bacteria during antibiotic treatment for infections. They are also used to prevent recurrent yeast infections, during recovery from infectious diarrheal illnesses, and in some cases of intestinal inflammation, such as that seen in inflammatory bowel disease.
In 2005 there was a study done by O’Mahoney et al, which showed a marked improvement of GI symptoms (abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea) in patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome who took probiotics compared with placebo (see reference). Adult and pediatric patients with Celiac Disease have recently been shown to have low levels of a probiotic species called Bifidobacterium in their digestive tracts (see reference).
A group of researchers from Argentina recently evaluated the benefit of giving probiotics to patients with Celiac Disease and published their results in the February 2013 issue of the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology (see reference). They gave patients with untreated Celiac Disease (just to clarify, these patients were still eating gluten) a probiotic called Bifidobacterium infantis for a 3 week course and compared them to controls who took a placebo. 86% of the Celiac patients had evidence of leaky gut (called increased intestinal permeability) at the beginning. At the end of the 3 week period they evaluated for a difference in leaky gut and found no difference between the group of Celiacs who received the probiotic and the group which did not. In the discussion at the end of the article, the authors admit that their lack of difference between groups may be due to the short duration of the study and/or the fact that the probiotic administered only contained one strain.
To date, there have been no studies evaluating the effect of probiotics on the symptoms of patients with Celiac Disease who are being treated with a gluten free diet. I think that most of us with Celiac Disease who are interested in probiotics are patients who are already gluten free but not feeling 100% better, having symptoms of leaky gut, multiple food intolerances, and/or want to optimize our treatment. If a patient with Celiac Disease is not following a gluten free diet, then I think that it is less likely that he or she would be interested in taking probiotics. So, as with so much of Celiac Disease, we, the current patients, are the subjects.
Based on the “experts” in the social media world and my own experiences I have learned the following about selecting the right probiotic:
1. Make sure that your probiotic is gluten free and also free of other foods to which you may have intolerances, such as lactose or soy.
2. The higher the bacteria count (CFU), the better.
3. The probiotic should contain at least 2 different strains of bacteria, of which one should be Lactobacillus.
4. Probiotics should be taken on an empty stomach.
5. Once you begin taking a probiotic, you will experience a 24 to 48 hour period of digestive distress. This is normal and I believe is part of the war between the “good” and “bad” bacteria in your intestines. This will improve with patience and time.
I have been taking an over-the-counter (OTC) probiotic called Florajen 3 for the last 6 months or so with a good effect. It costs about $24.99 for 90 capsules, a 3 month supply, and is gluten, soy, dairy, and corn free. Other probiotics which I have seen good reviews for include Culturelle and Align, which are OTC, and VSL #3, which is by prescription only.
Since starting the probiotic my digestive symptoms and sensitivities to other foods have improved. As I have read and researched this area further, I have also decided that if/when my kids need antibiotics in the future, that I will make sure that they take a probiotic at the same time to maintain a healthy gut flora (due to them all having a high risk of gluten-related issues due to a genetic predisposition to celiac disease). From all I have read about probiotics, I feel that the benefits far outweigh the risks for those of us with gluten-related illnesses.
Thank you for reading! If you are currently taking a probiotic, I would love to hear your experiences and advice.
*Also, a quick reminder that this is a blog. I am summarizing medical literature, but also adding in my own thoughts and opinions on what I have read. I am not trying to tell anyone what they should do for their own health, nor am I giving medical advice through this page. Thank you!