The health benefits we derive from supplementing with Probiotics is gaining more support among the average consumer due to the increasing scientific evidence proving the key role they play in maintaining and enhancing our health.
Probiotics are ‘good’ bacteria and/or yeasts that naturally live in our body. You constantly have both good and bad bacteria in your body. An infection, is when bad bacteria take over, knocking your system out of balance. Beneficial bacteria help eliminate extra bad bacteria, returning the balance. Probiotic-supplements are a way to add beneficial bacteria to your body.
Common probiotic bacteria include lactobacillus Acidophilus and bifidobacterium. The most common yeast found in probiotics is saccharomyces boulardii.
What are probiotics?
Bacteria are usually viewed in a negative light as something that makes you sick. However, we have both good and bad bacteria constantly in and on your body. Probiotics help us in many ways, including fighting off bad bacteria when we have too much of it, helping us feel better.
Probiotics are part of a larger picture concerning bacteria and our body — our microbiome, the name given to the bacterial world living in and on our bodies. We have trillions of microbes on and in your body. These microbes are a combination of:
- Fungi (including yeasts).
Everyone’s microbiome is unique. No two people have the same microbial cells — even twins are different.
For a microbe to be called a probiotic, it must have several characteristics. These include being able to:
- Be isolated from a human.
- Survive in our intestine after ingestion (being ingested).
- Have a proven benefit
- Be safe for consumption.
Where do beneficial probiotics (microbes) live in our body?
Though the most common place linked to beneficial microbes is our intestinal tract (mostly the colon – the large intestines), we have several locations in and on our body that host good microbes. These locations are in contact with the “outside world" and include your:
- Urinary tract.
How do probiotics work?
The key role probiotics play, is to maintain a healthy balance in our body. When we are sick, bad bacteria enters your body and increases in number. This knocks your body out of balance. Good bacteria work to fight off the bad bacteria and restore the balance within our body, making us feel better.
Probiotics keep us healthy by supporting our immune function and controlling inflammation. Certain types of probiotics can also:
- Help our body digest food.
- Keep bad bacteria from getting out of control and making us sick.
- Synthesise (make) vitamins.
- Help support the cells that line our intestinal tract to prevent bad bacteria that we may have consumed (through food or drinks) from entering our blood.
- Breakdown and absorb medications.
This balancing act is naturally happening in our body all the time. We do not actually need to take probiotic supplements to make it happen. Beneficial bacteria are just a natural part of our body. Eating a well-balanced diet rich in fibre every day helps keep the number of beneficial bacteria at proper levels.
Very often though, either we do not eat probiotic rich foods or after a course of antibiotics, we absolutely need to take probiotic supplements, even if only to prevent the illness causing bacteria take over.
What are the most common types of probiotic bacteria?
Though there are many types of bacteria that can be considered probiotics, there are two specific types of bacteria that are common probiotics found in stores. These include:
- Lactobacillus Acidophilus
Probiotics are also made up of good yeast. The most common type of yeast found in probiotics is:
- Saccharomyces boulardii.
Can I use probiotics to help with medical conditions?
There is currently a large amount of research happening around the idea of what probiotics can do for your body. Even though there are a lot of positive outcomes, researchers are still working to find definitive answers about how probiotics can help with various conditions.
But we know there are some medical conditions where probiotics may or do help. This can vary between people meaning that what works for one person may not work for another. These can also vary based on the certain probiotic that is taken.
Some of the conditions that might be helped by increasing the number of probiotics in your body (through food or supplements) include:
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Yeast infections
- Urinary tract infections
- Gum disease
- Lactose intolerance
- Eczema (atopic dermatitis)
- Upper respiratory infections (ear infections, common cold, sinusitis)
- Sepsis (specifically in infants).
Can I take or eat something to increase the good probiotics (microbes) in my body?
You can increase the number of good microbes in your body through foods, drinks and supplements. You may already have certain foods in your daily diet that contain probiotics. Fermented foods (Live yogurt and pickles, for example) are home to a host of good bacteria that benefit your body. Fermented drinks like kombucha (fermented tea) or kefir (fermented dairy drink) that introduce extra probiotics into your diet.
Apart from food, you can add probiotics to your diet through dietary supplements. These are not drugs, so they do not need to be approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). It is important that you always talk to your healthcare provider before starting any kind of supplement or major change to your diet.
Can I get probiotics from food?
You can absolutely increase beneficial microbes in your body from the foods you eat. Certain foods have probiotics (beneficial bacteria) in them and can benefit the health of your microbiome.
These foods can be introduced into your diet at any point of the day. You may even be regularly eating them now and not realize that they contain probiotics. You will want to check the food label for “live and active cultures.” A few suggestions for just some of the probiotic-rich foods you can add to your diet and sometimes to try them include:
For breakfast, try:
- Sourdough bread
- Cottage cheese
- Fermented pickles
- Fermented sauerkraut
- Miso soup
Make sure you are still creating a balanced and healthy meal each time you sit down to eat. Though adding probiotic-rich foods into your diet will not hurt you, balance is still key. Adding too much of just one food prevents your body from reaping the benefits of other food groups.
How do I take a probiotic supplement?
There are several ways you can take a probiotic supplement. They come in a variety of forms, including in:
- Capsules or pills
Probiotic supplements may be combined with a prebiotic. Prebiotics are complex carbohydrates that feed the microorganisms in your intestines. Prebiotics are the “food source” for the good bacteria. They help feed the beneficial bacteria and keep it healthy. Prebiotics include inulin, pectin and resistant starches.
When you have a supplement that combines a probiotic and prebiotic, it is called a synbiotic.
How effective are probiotics?
Researchers are currently unsure how effective probiotic supplements are for treating conditions. There’s constant research on the topic. While many research studies have had positive results on the impact of probiotic supplements, more research is still needed.
The more crucial factor to consider is whether the products are as declared on their label. Buy only tried and trusted probiotics as studies in the past have shown that many products are less than truthful about the claims made on behalf of certain products.
Finally, remember, probiotics are live, fragile organisms. When ingested, they must travel through the digestive tract all the way to the colon having to survive all your gastric juices and stomach acids to arrive at your colon where they are most needed. Always look for probiotics that are Micro encapsulated and presented in Gastric Resistant capsules. This will help ensure most probiotics you ingest arrive unharmed to your colon.
Are there any storage instructions for probiotics?
Several probiotic strains are very fragile and need to be protected from heat, oxygen, light and humidity. Exposure to these elements might start to break down or kill probiotics. Because of this, look for probiotics in glass bottles (best at ensuring product freshness) with properly sealable caps and never store the products without making sure the cap is fully sealed in between each use and never store your kitchen or bathroom cabinet (the two most hot and humid rooms in the house). In fact, you may need to refrigerate your probiotics or store them in a particular place. These precautions will ensure that they are still viable when you go to use them and will still provide the full benefit of the probiotic. Always read the labels on any probiotic product you purchase to make sure you store it correctly and use it within the expiration date.
How safe are probiotics?
Because microbes used as probiotics already exist naturally in your body, probiotic foods and supplements are considered safe. They may trigger allergic reactions, and may also cause mild stomach to upset, diarrhoea, or flatulence (passing gas) and bloating for the first few days after starting to take them.
There are certain people who need to use caution when using probiotic supplements. There is a risk of infection in some people. These people include those who have:
- A weakened immune system (those going through chemotherapy for example)
- A critical illness
- Recently had surgery
Caution should also be used when giving probiotics to extremely sick infants.
Always talk to your healthcare provider before starting a probiotic supplement.
Can probiotics hurt me?
For most healthy people, probiotics do not cause any harm. They are considered safe and are often “given a try” to see if they could help with various medical conditions. There is a lot of research around the topic of probiotics. Scientists are trying to determine when and how probiotics should be used, as well as how effective they are.
Are there any risks related to probiotics?
Probiotics are considered safe. However, there are some risks linked to the supplements. These risks are increased if you have a medical condition that weakens your immune system, have recently had surgery or have other serious medical conditions.
Unlikely, but possible, risks can include:
- Developing an infection
- Developing a resistance to antibiotics
- Developing harmful by-products from the probiotic supplement
Should I give probiotics to my kids?
Probiotics can be beneficial for both adults and kids. If your child has an illness that requires an antibiotic medication for treatment, taking a probiotic can help shorten symptoms. Probiotics can also be used to help relieve constipation, acid reflux, diarrhoea, gas and eczema in children.
Introducing probiotics into your child’s diet through food is typically a safe way to give them probiotics. Foods like yogurt and cottage cheese are often part of a balanced diet and can add in beneficial bacteria without much risk.
There are commercially available probiotic supplements specifically designed for infants and children. This is particularly of benefit to children born through C section as babies are born with sterile intestinal tracts and acquire their first dose of probiotics during their journey through the birth canal and breast feeding (if they are to be breastfed).
Older children will also benefit from supplements. Find a suitable ‘chewable’ tablet that is safe for children to take.
Do I need to take probiotics after I take antibiotics?
Antibiotics are often needed to fight an infection. However, while antibiotics kill the bad bacteria, they also kill the beneficial bacteria in your body. Some people develop conditions like diarrhoea after taking an antibiotic. In other people, this may allow for bad bacteria to take over and populate the gut, such as with C. difficile. Some research has shown a positive connection between taking probiotics after an antibiotic and relief from diarrhoea. This has not been proven yet and does not work for everyone.
The thought behind adding probiotics back into your body after taking an antibiotic is that it can repopulate the beneficial bacteria that was destroyed by the antibiotics and re-boot your system. The extra beneficial bacteria help repopulate your gut and fight off any remaining bad bacteria. Many people feel that adding in probiotics will not hurt, might help you feel better a little faster and prevent diarrhoea.