Can Probiotics Help Your Diabetes?
You may have heard a lot of buzz in the past few years about probiotics. Probiotics are a kind of bacteria found in our gut that can help with digestion. "They crowd out harmful bacteria and might even be an important mediator for other, more systemic diseases and disorders," says Rachele Pojednic, an assistant professor of nutrition at Simmons College and a staff scientist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
There's more and more evidence that probiotics can provide relief from diarrhea or help to repopulate your gut after you've taken antibiotics. Researchers are even looking to the benefits of probiotics in foods or via supplements to help with weight regulation, mental health, immune health and inflammatory gut diseases like Crohn's disease and inflammatory bowel syndrome, Pojednic says.
There's also more and more evidence that the flora in your gut can affect more than just digestive health, says Los Angeles-based Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian nutritionist, certified diabetes educator and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In other words, better gut health could improve your overall health.
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"As more research is devoted to the human microbiome, stronger evidence points to healthy bacteria in the gut having a positive impact on body weight, inflammation and even mood disorders," says New Jersey-based Erin Palinski-Wade, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator and author of "2-Day Diabetes Diet." Yet another potential benefit is that probiotics appear to help reduce cholesterol levels -- important when you have diabetes because of your increased risk for heart disease, Palinski-Wade says.
Probiotics have become a greater research focus as increased antibiotics use, stress and the consumption of processed food and sugar are changing our gut bacteria, Sheth says.
With all of the buzz, there's even been some research focused on probiotics use and better blood sugar control for people with diabetes. However, the bottom line is that the evidence is still limited, at least in humans, at this time. The research has mostly focused on cell culture and animal models.
"There are some promising animal studies ... but there have been very few clinical trials that look at whether the actual supplementation of probiotics has a lasting effect on the treatment or prevention of diabetes," Pojednic says. Yet other studies on this are underway. Some early findings are linking probiotic use to a reduction in fasting blood glucose levels and a reduction in hemoglobin A1C levels in people with Type 2 diabetes, Palinski-Wade says. The effects are particularly noted when probiotics are consumed for more than eight weeks, she adds.
Because diabetes can affect the immune system, making it harder for wounds to heal, one benefit of probiotics is a boosting of the immune system, says Grace Derocha, a certified diabetes educator and registered dietitian with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. That makes those sometimes stubborn wounds heal faster.
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A number of diabetes experts believe in the benefits of probiotics, even if it's more for gut or immune health than specifically for diabetes. Here are a few ways you can approach the use of probiotics.
Start with real food. There are supplements available, but real food is always ideal. Look for food that has live cultures. This can include yogurt and kefir but also pickles, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and tempeh. "You can also find many functional foods now where probiotics are added," Pojednic says.
If you find the food options confusing, don't worry. "I would recommend sticking to a high-quality yogurt a day, which has been associated with other health benefits as well," Pojednic says.
Consider supplements. Although supplements should be additive to an already balanced diet, they can be helpful. "I do recommend supplementation as well as food since it can be hard to be consistent with probiotic intake through food alone, and I feel the research is strong enough to warrant additional supplementation for the diabetic population," Palinski-Wade says.
"If patients opt for a probiotic supplement, they should make sure it has at least 30 parts per billion and is in a form that's easy for them to consume," Derocha says. How do you find that out about the product? Well...
Read labels. By reading labels, you'll better understand the product strength. Many companies are cashing in on the popularity of probiotics. You could find yourself consuming a supplement that doesn't have the probiotics power that it touts. That's because supplements are not regulated the same way medications are. Look for a USP seal on the product packaging or check the site ConsumerLab.com. "These outside agencies review the supplements to ensure you are truly getting what the label says you are getting," Palinski-Wade says.
By reading labels, you'll also see if your probiotic has any added sweetener -- an important consideration for your carb counting, Derocha cautions.
[Read: 7 Healthy Snack Ideas When You Have Diabetes.]
Talk to your health care provider. Probiotics may not be ideal for everyone. "If clients are having an overgrowth of yeast or have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, adding fermented foods to the diet may actually make things worse," Sheth says. "They would need to wait to introduce fermented foods after their gut has healed. Also, anyone with a histamine intolerance may not tolerate fermented foods." In other words, those foods could cause allergy-like symptoms because they naturally contain a large amount of histamine.
Also, make sure that probiotics will not negatively affect other supplements or medications you currently use.
Don't expect miracles. "Probiotics do not cure or resolve Type 2 diabetes," Derocha says. "They simply contribute to a healthier digestive system and overall health, which can help make diabetes easier to manage." Continue to check your blood sugar regularly, count carbohydrates, see your health provider regularly and take medicine as prescribed.
Vanessa Caceres is a Health freelancer for U.S. News. She's a nationally published health, travel and food writer, and she has an undergraduate degree in journalism and psychology from Hampshire College and a graduate degree in linguistics/bilingual education from Georgetown University. Connect with her on Twitter at @FloridaCulture.