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Need to Know: 6 Side Effects of Probiotics

With a growing body of research pointing to the importance of a healthy gut and microbiome, the demand for probiotics has grown significantly in recent years. Health-conscious individuals are now buying foods fortified with probiotics to promote good bacteria in the gut, which research has shown to boost health and stave off certain diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease.

However, probiotics aren’t perfect. Ironically, these live microorganisms can initially cause some of the symptoms they’re purported to alleviate. While these symptoms will go away after the body has time to adjust, they can be irritating. To reduce the potential for side effects, it’s important that you choose high-quality probiotics from reputable probiotic manufacturers.

Before you take probiotics, here are six side effects that you should be aware of.

1. Headaches

Headaches can be triggered by a variety of things, making it difficult to pinpoint their exact cause. However, complaints of headaches after taking probiotics may be valid. Amines, a group of chemicals including histamine and tyramine, may be partly to blame. Found in probiotic-rich foods such as yogurt and aged cheeses, amines can divert blood flow to the gut and restrict blood flow elsewhere. These fluctuations in blood flow are thought to be a trigger for migraines and other headaches. Most people find that their headaches go away within a few days or a week of starting probiotics. If your headaches persist after a few weeks, see a doctor.

2. Allergies

If you suffer from allergies, be warned that some strains of probiotics may trigger them initially. Again, biogenic amines such as histamine are found in high amounts in many fermented foods, which can cause an allergic reaction in people with histamine intolerance. Those with histamine intolerance have low diamine oxidase (DAO) activity, an enzyme which is responsible for the degradation of histamine. When DAO fails to inhibit histamine, you get unpleasant symptoms such as sneezing, headaches, itching, or swelling. If you experience these symptoms after taking probiotics, you could have a sensitivity to histamine. To make things easier while adjusting to probiotics, try avoiding foods high in histamines for a week.

3. Mild Gas and Bloating

Although probiotics can relieve digestive issues and promote gut health, they can also cause bloating and gas. This is bad news for those who already suffer from chronic digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome. Sometimes, bloating and gas are due to the dairy ingredients in some strains of probiotics. If you’re lactose intolerant, this can cause persistent abdominal discomfort. Fortunately, gas and bloating are also temporary symptoms of probiotics. If your symptoms persist, it could simply be the specific strain you’re using. Talk with a probiotic manufacturer and ask them about a different strain you could try to relieve gastrointestinal distress.

4. Diarrhea

Your gut contains both good and bad bacteria. Usually, diarrhea occurs when bad bacteria enter the body.
Although there are studies to suggest that probiotics help alleviate traveler’s diarrhea, some probiotics can cause runny stool by stimulating your digestive tract. This usually goes away within two or three days. You can reduce some of the symptoms by taking digestive enzyme supplements with your probiotics. Digestive enzymes can help break down difficult to digest foods such as beans and certain vegetables, alleviating gas and bloating symptoms.

5. Acne

Probiotics are being closely scrutinized by researchers for their potential to treat acne. Unfortunately, probiotics might make the problem worse before it can get better. Problems in the gut often show up on our skin in some form or another. Before probiotics can start modifying the microbiome for the better, they may potentially trigger the body’s inflammatory responses. However, there is little in the way of scientific evidence to support this claim, despite many anecdotal accounts of worsening acne. There is still much that we don’t know about both acne and probiotics, making it hard to decipher the exact mechanisms behind each.

6. Increased Risk of Infection

Although probiotics are considered safe for most people, those with weakened immune systems should take care when taking probiotic supplements. According to research compiled in a 2015 review, cases of systemic infections such as fungemia (yeasts in the blood) were linked to taking probiotics. However, don’t let this fool you into thinking that probiotics cause infections. In fact, the opposite is true for healthy persons. A study published in The BMJ found that children who drank probiotic milk for seven months were less likely to get sick and have absences from day care.

More Tips for Reducing Probiotic Side Effects

Keep in mind that there are many different strains of probiotics. Moreover, our bodies are unique and will react differently to each strain.

For most people, the benefits of taking probiotics far outweigh the potential side effects. To reduce your side effects and weather through the adjustment period, you need to …

Take them on an empty stomach. Probiotics should be taken first thing in the morning on an empty stomach to avoid fermenting with other foods. Take them with a glass of water — not coffee! Coffee can also speed up the digestive system and may potentially cause diarrhea with probiotics.

Be consistent. Take probiotics every day at the same time to boost their efficacy. This will help you see results quicker and promote a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut.

Eat enough fiber. Make sure that you’re getting enough fiber throughout the day. Probiotics promote good bacteria in the gut, which feed off dietary fiber.

Try different strains. Don’t get discouraged if one strain of probiotic doesn’t agree with you. Try another and keep a diary log of how it makes you feel.

The Bottom Line

Probiotics have gained widespread popularity for their potential to treat a variety of health issues, from obesity to depression. However, they aren’t a magic solution for everyone and may cause unwanted side effects.

Talk with your doctor first before starting any probiotic supplement. They can examine your unique health history and recommend whether probiotics may be beneficial to you.

Brenda Kimble is a writer and wellness blogger for sites such as Longevity Live and Thrive Global. When she is not working, she is doing yoga, crafting with her kids, or strolling the streets of her Austin, Texas, neighborhood.

Photo: Belchonock

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