The term “probiotics” refers to live organisms, generally bacteria, that live in our intestinal tract and are considered healthy. They are found in fermented foods, such as yogurt, or can be taken in supplement form.

People living with cancer sometimes use probiotics to manage diarrhea and generally maintain a healthy intestinal tract. Probiotics are also thought to support the immune system.

At the same time, because these are live bacteria, there has been some caution about using probiotics either in food products or as supplements while receiving treatment for cancer. It is true that there have been reports of bacterial infection with supplement use, but the documented cases have been in those with extremely compromised immune systems, for example, a person with both AIDS and Hodgkins disease.  Probiotics are also contraindicated for those with pancreatitis and possibly those undergoing stem cell transplants.

In general then, unless instructed otherwise by your healthcare team, it appears that probiotics are safe to use in food form (such as yogurt with active bacteria). In supplement form, of course, it is best to discuss with your oncologist beforehand.

As an alternative, you can eat foods that contain “prebiotics,” mainly soluble fiber. Prebiotics are the “food” for the good bacteria already in your system. Soluble fiber is found in oatmeal, oat cereal, oat bran, apples, oranges, pears, strawberries, nuts, flaxseeds, lentils, beans, dried peas, blueberries, psyllium, cucumbers, celery, and carrots.

For a prebiotic boost, try our tahini and apple oatmeal, strawberry compote smoothie, minestrone soup, or braised lentils with spinach.


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