What You Should Know About Probiotics | CHFA

About Probiotics. Eating foods or taking supplements?

About Probiotics: What it is and what it does

How human are you? One hundred per cent?  Ninety-two per cent?  If it’s a numbers game, you had better think again!

It’s estimated that we have 100 trillion bacterial cells living in our intestines, outnumbering our human cells 10 to 1.  We have an interconnected relationship with these bacteria and as a result when our gut microbe populations are imbalanced, disease can occur.

The term “probiotic” refers to living microorganisms (e.g. bacteria) that provide a health benefit when taken at sufficient doses.  Not only can regular intake lead to significant improvements in health, they are especially effective at re-establishing balance when it is thrown off due to illness.

“Did You Know?”The gut has an amazing “second brain” – an intricate network of neurons that communicates with our “main” brain.  Research even shows that bacteria in the gut can communicate with the central nervous system.In fact, 95% of the body’s serotonin, our “feel good” hormone, and 50% of the body’s dopamine are produced in the gut!This gives new meaning to having a “gut feeling”.



An  imbalanced gut bacteria population has been associated with a wide number of conditions including obesity, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), autism, atherosclerosis, allergies, type-1-diabetes, celiac disease and colorectal cancer.  The diversity of these conditions highlights the importance of maintaining a healthy, balanced gut culture.

Regular consumption of probiotics has been shown to help treat and prevent gastrointestinal issues, including persistent diarrhea, IBS, IBD, and for children may help to prevent allergies and reduce the severity of atopic dermatitis.

Our gut microbes also exert a powerful effect over our immune system, keeping it primed and ready to respond to invaders.  Use of probiotics by otherwise healthy people may reduce the risk and severity of common ailments including upper-respiratory tract infections and flu-like symptoms.

Another exciting area of research is exploring the finding that intestinal microbes can affect the signals of your brain and that probiotics might be a new approach to preventing anxiety and depression.  In the reverse, stress can actually reduce the population of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacilli in the gut, while increasing growth of the bad bugs like E. coli!

This is an expanding field that will continue to intrigue as we further our understanding of the intimate relationship we have with our gut microbes.

Where we get it from

Humans in all cultures have been consuming probiotics for millennia in the form of fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, cheese, kimchi, tempeh and sauerkraut, to name a few.  The bacteria in these foods not only create delicious products, but when consumed, can contribute to a healthy colony in our intestines.

Probiotic supplements in capsule or liquid forms are an exciting, novel way of complementing our gut ecosystem.   These innovative products often come with enteric coatings so they can pass through the strong acid in our stomach unharmed and reach the large intestine where they can set up shop.

Re-establishing and maintaining your gut bacteria can be accomplished using a two-pronged approach.  First, eating foods or taking supplements that provide probiotics can help to introduce those good bacteria.  Then, consuming prebiotic soluble fibre, which acts as food for probiotics, helps to keep your good gut-bugs healthy and happy.

Remember to always consult your health care practitioner to see which products are right for you.

Tips for Shopping

Here are some quick tips to keep in mind when shopping for a probiotic supplement:

1)       Check to see where your probiotic is stored when purchased.  Many products are stored in the refrigerator to ensure that the probiotic bacteria in each dose remain active.  Read the label to check storage instructions.

2)       The probiotic supplement should list the number of active bacteria, often called “colony forming units” (CFUs) on the label.  This number can be anywhere from 20 billion to more than 1 trillion CFU/day, depending on the strain!  Remember that these are living cells, so check the expiry date carefully to make sure they will be active throughout the period of use.

Remember to always consult your health care practitioner to see which products are right for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

1)       I just got back from vacation and I have a bad case of travellers’ diarrhea. Will a probiotic supplement help?

Travellers’ diarrhea is a nasty ailment to pick up when away.  The most common cause is due to bacterial pathogens and treatments vary.  Research shows that consuming probiotics can help to prevent this condition, so next time you travel, consider taking probiotics before and while you are on holiday (Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacteria bifidum and Saccharomyces boulardii show the best benefits).  Be sure to drink plenty of water and/or oral rehydration salts, and speak with your health care practitioner about treatment options.

2)       Do probiotic supplements have any side effects?

Side effects from taking probiotic supplements as recommended are rare.

3)       Should I take probiotics if I am taking antibiotics?

Antibiotics kill both the good and bad bacteria in your body if you have an infection.  Although antibiotics can help you get over your illness, a probiotic might help to re-establish the colonies of good bacteria wiped out by the antibiotics.

4)       Are probiotic supplements safe for me and my family?

Some people who are critically ill or who have a compromised immune system should not take probiotic supplements without consulting their health care practitioner.  For otherwise healthy people, probiotic supplements are a safe and effective addition to a healthy lifestyle when taken as instructed.  Examine the label of any probiotic supplement to assess the levels per capsule.  While looking at the label, look for the 8-digit Natural Product Number (NPN).  This number means that the product has been assessed and approved for safety and quality by Health Canada.

5)       Which strain is better: Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium or Saccharomyces?

Research is starting to explore the different health effects of different strains of probiotic.  What appears to be true is that not all strains are created equal – certain strains of probiotics are better for certain conditions.  For general use on a wide range of conditions (including, IBS, diarrea, dermatitis, IBD) a mixture of probiotic strains appears to be more effective than single strains.  For specific conditions, individual strains have been shown to be effective.  For example, infectious childhood diarrhea responds best to Lactobacillus reuteri and Saccharomyces boulardii.  Bifidobacterium longum and Bifidobacterium animalis may relieve gastrointestinal discomfort and abdominal pain, bloating and constipation. This is still an expanding area of research.  Read the label of your supplement carefully to see what condition is recommended.

6)       Does my stomach acid kill the probiotic bacteria I take as a supplement or food?

The strong acid in our stomach is important to process foods and to kill any bad bugs that might come along with it, but it might also harm some of the good microbes we consume.  Some probiotic supplements come with innovative microencapsulation or coatings that protect the probiotic cells from the harsh stomach environment and help them reach the intestines alive.  However, research does show that beneficial Lactobacillus species are tolerant to acid and can survive the acidic environment of the stomach.  It remains to be seen

A final note

Taking probiotics as a supplement might interact with some medications.  Consult with your health care practitioner regarding questions about any supplements you are taking.  This document should not take the place of medical advice.

*This article was prepared for CHFA by Blair Cameron, who holds a Master of Science in Human Health and Nutritional Sciences from the University of Guelph where he specialized in micronutrient nutrition and science communication. For the full document, including citations, click here.

Source: https://www.chfa.ca/resources/what-you-should-know-about-probiotics/

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