You Are What ‘They’ Eat: the world of probiotics

by Sarah Campbell-Bligh, R.D.

Did you know that you have more bacterial cells in and on your body than you have your own human cells? Don’t let that scare you – most of these bacteria are helpful. They make up what we call the human microbiome. Current research is showing that our relationship with good bacteria can have a big impact on our health. One of the most researched topics is the relationship to bacteria and gut health. There are many different probiotic supplements on the market, so many in fact that it’s hard to know which one to choose! The answer is not a simple one since it really depends on what kind of results you’re looking for. Here’s a look into the world of probiotics.


Probiotics 101


The term probiotic is heavily regulated. There are five strict criteria that bacteria have to meet before they can be called probiotic:

1)  It must come from humans – no animal bacteria please!

2)  It must be proven safe. This means it can’t cause illness.

3)  It must be able to survive passage through your stomach and small intestine to reach the bowel, which is where these friendly bugs do their work.

4)  It must be able to colonize or grow in your body.

5)  And last, but not least, it must give a health benefit.


Probiotics can be found in many different places. There are healthy bacteria in fermented foods like yogurt, Kefir, tempeh, miso, sauerkraut and kombucha tea. You can also find probiotic supplements in powder, capsule, and liquid form. Depending on the bacteria and how it’s packaged they have different storage instructions – so follow directions on your probiotic supplement.


One thing to keep in mind is that not all probiotic supplements are created equal. Just like people have different jobs and skills, so do bacteria. This means that you’d need to take a different probiotic depending on what you’re trying to treat.


Taking a Probiotic Supplement


There are definitely specific times that taking a probiotic is a good idea. One is if you need to take antibiotics. Antibiotics help kill bad bacteria that cause infections – unfortunately they kill the good guys too.  Taking a probiotic during and after antibiotic therapy can help keep the good bacteria alive. This is important because your gut plays a big role in your immune system. Think of it like throwing a house party. You’d invite all your friends so people you didn’t like couldn’t show up. The gut works in a similar way – if it’s full of friendly bugs the bad ones don’t have room to grow. You should start a probiotic within 72 hours of starting your antibiotics. It’s important not to take them at the same time - you don’t want the good bacteria to interfere with your antibiotic. Make sure you discuss proper timing of doses with your pharmacist.


Probiotics can also help if you have diarrhea as a result of antibiotics, or even with chronic diarrhea. They work best when combined with rehydration therapy (like a sports drink, but heavier duty) and you have to start the probiotic within 24 hours of the diarrhea starting or else it won’t give much benefit. The strains that seem to work best for preventing or treating antibiotic associated diarrhea are Lactobacillus casei GG, found in the brand Culturelle, and S. boulardii, found in the brand Florastor.  If you prefer a food source to a supplement, DanActive contains L. casei as well, and is a drinkable yogurt.


If you have IBS a probiotic can help with the symptom relief. Probiotics have been shown to help with pain and bloating. The best strains for this have been B. infantis 35634, which is found in the brand Align, and B. lactis DM 173010 which is found in Activia yogurt.


If you’re not dealing with any immediate problems and you just want to promote better gut health you can still take a probiotic. Go with something that has multiple strains of bacteria to give you the best chance of benefit. You can also try including more fermented foods in your diet. Have kombucha tea with lunch or add tempeh to your salad. Use Kefir in your smoothie at breakfast, or give kimchi a try! You can find these foods at grocery stores, health food stores, and farmers markets.


Feed the Friendlies


What you eat impacts your gut bacteria as much as it impacts you. Foods high in sugar, refined grains,

salt, and fat tend to encourage bad bacteria to grow, while diets high in fibre, vegetables and fruit, and

plant proteins encourage the good guys to flourish. Making a move towards a more plant based and

whole foods diet is the way to go if you want to keep your bacteria health. As we’ve heard it said for

many years – try to eat lots of vegetables and fruits, and choose meat alternatives like chickpeas, lentils,

and other beans more often.


If you’re interested in improving your gut health, talk to your dietitian. They can help you choose the

best probiotic supplement for the specific benefits you’re looking for, show you ways to include more

fermented foods in your diet, and help you make food choices that will keep your friendly bacteria alive

and kicking. Stay tuned as more research continues to emerge in the exciting world of probiotics!


Sarah Campbell Bligh, R.D.


Disclaimer: This article is the opinion of the writer and is based on current research at the time of printing. It is not meant to act as medical or therapeutic advice. Always consult your health care professional for specific advice based on your individual needs.




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