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The Health Benefits of Probiotics

The Health Benefits of Probiotics

You have probably heard by now that taking probiotics will improve your health.  You may not remember all the reasons why probiotics are so beneficial.  Let me give you a quick refresher on the subject.  Hopefully after reading this, you may find it’s easier to swallow a few billion bacteria each day.

What are probiotics?

Gut flora is comprised of a mass of bacteria, yeasts, virus, worms and one-cell structures that live in our digestive tracts.  Out of this mass of micro biota, the portion of “bugs” that are beneficial to our health is called probiotics–coming from the Greek “pro” and “biota” meaning “for life.” Probiotic bacteria keep pathogenic or harmful microbes in check.   They aid in digestion and nutrient absorption. And most importantly, they support the body’s immune system.

What health conditions are treated with probiotics?

There is a growing body of scientific evidence suggesting that probiotics can be used therapeutically to treat and prevent illness.  One of the primary ways that probiotics improve our health is through their influence on the GALT, or gut associated lymphoid tissue.  The GALT is a fancy name for the immune system in our digestive tract.  Probiotics have a modulating effect on our GALT (gut immune system) which in turn, supports our systemic immune system to fight off infection, decrease reactions to allergies, and heal inflammation in our digestive tract.[i]  Probiotics have been used to treat and prevent the following health conditions:

  • Oral thrush

  • Colic

  • Acid reflux

  • Eczema

  • Autism

  • Adrenal fatigue

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome

  • Fibromyalgia

  • Food allergies

  • Food addictions

  • Hay fever

  • Candida infections

  • Vaginal infections

  • Diarrhea

  • Constipation

  • Irritable bowel syndrome

  • Malabsorption

  • Ulcerative colitis

  • Crohn’s disease

  • Post-antibiotic diarrhea

  • Upper respiratory infections

  • Lactose intolerance


How do I choose the right probiotic supplement for me?

One of the downside of probiotic supplements is that consumers are often not getting what the supplement label promises.  A study in 1999 found that of over 50 probiotic supplements tested, most contained fewer live organisms than what the label reported.[ii] There is currently no standardization of these types of products in the United States.

The highest quality probiotics are usually sold through a naturopathic doctor.  The physician-line supplements are more likely to have higher amounts of probiotic bacteria and usually contain the most researched strains of beneficial bacteria.

If the health food store is your next bet, then I recommend that consumers read the labels.  Look for the probiotic supplements that list specific strands of bacteria on their label.   Look for three names in the strain of bacteria, such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG.  The final two letters identifies the strain of bacteria.  I recommend finding a probiotic that contains the bacteria, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG.  This particular strand of bacteria has gone through extensive scientific testing and has been clinically proven to help treat urinary treat infections, vaginal infections, atopic dermatitis and antibiotic-associated diarrhea.  Other specific microbes that have proven health benefits are listed below.

Strain                                                          Benefits

Bifidobacterium animalis DN-173 010 (marketed as: Bifidis Regularis) Gut health and digestion
Bifidobacterium infantis 35624 Helps irritable bowel syndrome
Bifidobacterium lactis Bb-12 Immune system and gut health
Lactobacillus casei Shirota Immune system and gut health
Lactobacillus casei DN-114 001 (marketed as: L. casei Immunitas) Immune system, lessens duration of colds and flues in older people
Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-11 Helps vaginal infections
Lactobacillus reuteri 55730 Helps antibiotic associated diarrhea
Saccharomyces boulardii yeast Helps antibiotic associated diarrhea

*Chart footnote:[iii]

How much should I take?  

Research has been done on a wide variety of dosages of probiotics.  The Cochrane Library conducted a review of clinical trials using probiotic therapy to treat diarrhea and found nearly all dosages effective.[iv]  From my clinical experience, in order to effectively treat severe candida infections or antibiotic associated diarrhea, a patient needs to take around 100 billion organisms per day for several months.  Dosages for maintenance plans or preventative health plans are around 8 to 30 billion organisms per day.  I recommend that clients take their probiotics with a meal or at the end of a meal.  I have them refrigerate the bottle to maintain the bacterial shelf life.  If a client needs antibiotics, I have them take the probiotics during the course of their antibiotics and for up to 3 months afterwards to fully repopulate the micro biota in their digestive tract.

Can I get probiotics through foods?

Yes, but typically the amount of probiotics in food is significantly less than the amount required to treat infection, allergies or digestive issues.  It is still beneficial to eat probiotic-containing foods as a way to support your overall health.  The foods with the highest amount of probiotics include unpasteurized fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, lassi (Indian yogurt), kefir (fermented milk), natto (fermented soy), and pickled cabbage or other pickled vegetables.

Are there any downsides to taking probiotics?

Probiotics are generally considered safe to use for healthy people.  In 143 studies that included a total of over 7500 participants, no serious adverse effects of probiotics were reported.[v]  People at risk of immune suppression should consult a physician before taking probiotics.

[i] Saavedra JM, Tschemia A. Human studies with probiotics and prebiotics: clinical implications. British Journal of Nutr  2002: 87, Suppl. 2, S241-S246.

[ii] Hamilton-Miller JM, Shah S, Winkler JT. Public health issues arising from microbiological and labeling quality of foods and supplements containing probiotic microorganisms. Public Health Nutr 1999;2:223–9.

[iii] Johannes, L. But Crazy: Assessing the Benefits of Probiotics.  The Wall Street Journal.  2009: Jan 13.

[iv] Allen SJ, et al. Probiotics for treating infectious diarrhea.  The Cochran Library. 2002. Issue 4.

[v] Madsen KL. The use of probiotics in gastrointestinal disease. Can J Gastroenterol 2001;15:817–22.