Probiotics have proven to be effective in treating and preventing a host of health conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, urinary tract and yeast infections, eczema and intestinal infections.  Researchers are now exploring probiotics as an effective treatment option for various forms of cancer, specifically leukemia and lymphoma.

Probiotics are the “good” bacteria found in the digestive tract and which support healthy digestive and immune systems.  Probiotics are also found in a number of food sources and supplements, including yogurt, kefir and fermented vegetable.

Protection from Secondary Infections

Arguably, the most beneficial demonstrated aspect of probiotics has been their ability to protect the body from secondary infection caused by the harmful bacteria Clostridium difficile, or C. diff.  C. diff has demonstrated to be resistant to antibiotics, making it particularly dangerous when recovering from various bacterial infections that require antibiotics.  Antibiotics eliminate both harmful and helpful bacteria, including those considered probiotics – specifically, lactobacillus.  Lactobacillus keeps C. diff in check, preventing it from spreading and causing damage in other areas of the body.   Probiotics, from yogurt or other supplementary sources, replenish the helpful bacteria lost to antibiotic treatment.

Researchers are now using this knowledge to consider how probiotics can further the fight against cancer.

Probiotics Supporting the Fight Against Cancer

Specifically, researchers are finding an alarmingly high percentage of immune system “attacks” on cancer cells when donor bone marrow is transplanted into the body of cancer patients.  While the attack on the cancer cells is the desired effect, the immune system also attacks healthy cells in the body, particularly in the intestines.  This attack on the GI system, found in nearly 40% of cases, creates an opportunistic environment for C. diff, often allowing the bacteria to thrive and spread infection to other parts of the body.  This unwanted, secondary infection weakens the immune systems effectiveness, leading to potential failure of bone marrow transplant, as well as serious infections in other major systems of the body, including respiratory and excretory systems.

Since probiotics demonstrate the ability to reduce, and even prevent, the growth and spread of harmful bacteria, scientists are studying its potential as a way to lessen complications associated with transplants of health bone marrow.  As this research progresses, scientists will also examine probiotics potential with transplants of all types, not solely for bone marrow.

Recommended Daily Consumption of Probiotics

While research has yet to determine the amount of probiotics required to prevent secondary infection during bone marrow transplant surgery, scientists, nutritionists and researchers have made several recommendations for probiotic use.  Although probiotics and related supplements  are not regulated by the FDA, nutritionists recommend consuming between 1 billion and 10 billion live active bacteria cultures each day.  This is typically the amount found in a serving of yogurt.  Supplementation with over-the-counter probiotic supplements has also demonstrated to be effective in consuming the desired amount of good bacteria; bacteria counts found in typical supplements range from 10 billion to 250 billion per serving.  While consuming billions of bacteria on a daily basis may seem alarming, keep two important items in mind:  these are healthy bacteria, and the typical healthy human digestive system has over 100 trillion bacteria living within it[1]!



[1] “Health benefits of taking probiotics – Harvard Health Publications.” 2005. 23 Mar. 2013 <http://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/updates/update0905c.shtml>

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