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Can probiotics help infant colic?

A recent study suggests probiotics could help colicky babies. Find out more about how our bacteria can affect our health.

Some new studies seem to think that what used to be considered an "alternative medicine" treatment for infantile colic, may actually be "traditional medicine's" best treatment: giving colicky babies probiotics (often called good or normal germs). Colicky babies, crying and acting as if they are in severe pain, can happen to about 10 percent of newborns, especially in the first 12 weeks of life and there has been no effective treatment for this problem up to now.

A recent study in JAMA Pediatrics showed that using daily normal bacteria or probiotics, in this case lactobacillus reuteri (similar to the bacteria that is the "live culture" in yogurt), for the first 12 weeks of life given daily markedly reduced the pain, writhing, gas and other signs of infantile colic. This large study of almost 600 babies, where neither the parents or the doctors knew whether the babies were getting the good bacteria or the placebo, found that that crying time per day was almost cut in half (39 minutes versus 71 minutes), spitting up was almost cut in half (2.9 times daily versus 4.6 times daily) and the infants had slightly more bowel movements.

Bacteria live in a symbiotic (bacteria and human help each other thrive) and sometimes parasitic (bacterial thrive at the expense of the human) relationship on every human being. Each of us has about 10 bacterial cells on the skin, the mucous membrane, and especially in our gut for every human cell we have in our body.  Microbiology teachers love to tell their students that each human is 91 percent bacterial by number of cells.

About 500 different species of bacteria live in us and they help and hurt us in many ways:

1) If you take the gut bacteria of a skinny mouse and transplant it to a fat mouse, the fat mouse will lose a lot of weight, so we know that our gut flora likely aids us in absorbing our food and can also make us fat by being too good at helping us absorb our food.

2) When we get an antibiotic to treat a serious infection, the side effects can be quite dramatic with yeast infections, overgrowth of other fungi and diarrhea.  All these occur because the antibiotic not only killed the "bad" bacteria making us ill, but also killed the good bacteria protecting our gut.

3) Clostridium difficile Infection, a sometimes fatal side effect of antibiotic treatment, especially dangerous in older, debilitated patients, can be treated by doing a fecal transplant from a healthy individual (Yes, this means taking the stool of a healthy person and placing it in the colon of a ill person.)

4) Using a daily supplemental high-dose probiotic can, in some adults, calm down irritable bowel syndrome with its alternation of constipation and diarrhea and its belly aches, seemingly by "normalizing" our gut flora.

5) The germs on our skin and the mucous membranes of the nose and throat prevent bad bacteria such MRSA from colonizing us.  Although washing is good in general, over washing with anti-bacterial soaps can actually rid us of our normal protective layer of bacteria on the skin and make us more susceptible to infection.

As you can see, bacteria can play a significant role in our health. Doctors do not know what causes functional gastrointestinal disorders such as colic or irritable bowel, but many have suspected these are disorders of our gut bacteria. This study from JAMA Pediatrics seems to say that this is the case, at least in newborns. Currently, there are probiotic supplements available for infants meant for colic. It's best to check with your pediatrician before giving a product like this to your child. Further research is needed to give us more insights into the potential relationship between colic and gut bacteria.

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