Your bowel is lined with trillions of microbes that play an essential role in supporting your immune and digestive system. Probiotics stimulate the growth of micro-organisms, to promote a healthy balance of the ‘good bacteria’, especially in the intestinal flora. Benefits can include reduced diarrhoea, abdominal cramping and bloating, and improvement in healthy bowel movements, gut lining and microflora balance.
Unfortunately, cancer treatment, chemotherapy and radiotherapy in particular, can damage gut cells, which disrupts absorption of nutrients and your immune function. In some people, this can lead to problems during and after treatment, potentially leading to malnutrition, weight loss, nausea or diarrhoea.
Chemotherapy agents such as fluorouracil are known to cause diarrhoea, which is uncomfortable, and can also lead to dehydration, concentration of the drug in the bloodstream, and greater side-effects and risks generally. In some hospitals, probiotics are now prescribed before surgery for patients who are having bowel surgery, as part of the enhanced recovery programme. The aim is to make you as well as possible before you begin treatment, so that you recover more quickly.
However, probiotics are not suitable for patients who are neutropaenic. This is a potential side-effect of chemotherapy where your white blood cell count drops to a very low level, giving you a reduced resistance to infection.
Although more research is needed, there’s encouraging evidence that probiotics may also help to:
Separate clinical studies have shown that a group of patients undergoing radiotherapy who were given lactobacillus supplements experienced a much lower rate of moderate to severe diarrhoea.
Lactobacillus probiotics have also been shown to help alleviate food intolerance and allergic conditions. Food intolerance leads to periods of bloating, wind and colicky indigestion – this is often labelled irritable bowel syndrome. This can develop for no apparent reason at any stage of life, but it is even more likely if you have had a prolonged illness, antibiotics or chemotherapy.
Most people can safely add probiotic foods to a healthy diet. These include yogurt, fermented and unfermented milk, miso, and some juices and soya drinks. Read product labels carefully, and look for a statement that the product contains ‘live and active cultures’ such as lactobacillus.
You can also take concentrated doses of probiotics in capsule form. If you’re considering taking probiotics in this form, you should check with your dietitian or specialist to make sure the supplements are right for you.