You may have heard of probiotics and been encouraged to eat them for gut health. You may know that they are “good” bacteria. Maybe your friend told you that you can get them from fermented foods like kombucha. Although there is great interest in probiotics, there is also a lot of confusion. Read this month’s article to find out if probiotics can improve your health.

Probiotics: Healthy From the Inside Out


Can probiotics really improve your health?

Gut health
The main function of the digestive system (also known as the gastro-intestinal tract, or GI tract, or gut) is to break down food and absorb the nutrients. Our body uses nutrients to grow, heal and function on a day-to-day basis.

The gut hosts a community of over 100 trillion microbes, including bacteria. This community of microbes is called your gut microbiota. A healthy gut contains different types of microbes in very high numbers, in different amounts. Your microbiota is as unique as your fingerprint!

Within your microbiota there is a delicate balance of good and bad bacteria. When the balance shifts so that there are fewer good bacteria and more bad bacteria present, gut health problems such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease can result. If this goes on for a long time, it may lead to chronic disease such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Changes in your gut microbiota, like a decrease in the number of good bacteria, are caused by the following:

  • aging
  • diet – poor food choices or changes in diet
  • stress
  • illness
  • medications (antibiotics and other prescribed drugs)

So how do you get these good bacteria back into balance? Taking probiotics is one way.

What are probiotics?

Experts have agreed on a technical definition for probiotics, but what do you need to know? There are three main criteria for defining a probiotic:

  1. Live bacteria – the bacteria must survive processing (heating, cooling and shelf-life) as well as digestion in the gut
  2. Ample quantity – when they reach the gut, they must be in great enough numbers to offer a health benefit
  3. Proven health benefit – the bacterial strain is known, was studied in humans and showed a health benefit

By definition, probiotics are not the same thing as the good bacteria in your gut, although both may be “good” bacteria. Live, active cultures in fermented foods are also not always probiotics. You may find they are often referred to as the same thing, but experts have noted recently that they are different.

Fermented foods have been consumed for thousands of years for health benefits. Examples include:

  • yogurt
  • kefir
  • kimchi
  • sauerkraut
  • sour dough bread
  • kombucha

These foods contain “live, active cultures” such as bacteria and yeast. There is some proof that there is a helpful effect of fermented foods (mainly for fermented dairy products) to reduce the risk of certain diseases. However, the live, active cultures in fermented foods fail to meet the criteria for a probiotic for these reasons:

  • the types of bacteria have not been properly identified
  • the stability of the microbes is unknown
  • too few studies have been done in humans that look at the health benefits

In general, there may be a health benefit to consuming fermented foods for their live, active cultures, but they do not provide probiotics.

Why are probiotics important? Probiotics can improve your digestive and overall health. Many studies have shown that probiotics are safe, can help to improve your immune system and can prevent and treat some diseases of the gut.

Where do I find probiotics?

Probiotics are added to certain foods such as milk products like yogurt, or come in supplement form. Try a “foods first” approach. If you decide to use a supplement, make sure to check that it is licensed by Health Canada. A product is licensed if it has a Natural Product Number on the label. These products have been assessed and found to be safe, effective and of high quality when used as directed. This online resource identifies probiotic products by name brand and lists the strains of probiotics they provide with the level of proof for their health effect. You can use this tool to research what Canadian probiotics products are available. Or download the app, Probiotic Guide Canada, for free.

What dose of probiotics should I take?

At this time, no general advice can be made. It is not possible to provide one dose for all probiotic foods and supplements. Check the probiotic product label for the dose you need. Probiotics do not stay in the gut; so, to gain the most benefit, take them regularly. Different strains of bacteria have different health effects. For example, to treat traveller’s diarrhea, you will need to find a probiotic that targets that specific condition. To promote overall good gut health, look for a product that provides several types of bacteria. The more strains of bacteria a product contains, the better the chance will be that it has beneficial effects.

What’s the bottom line?
Taking probiotics can be beneficial to your health. Research has shown that probiotics contribute to a healthy gut and support a healthy immune system.

Colinda Hunter

Registered Dietitian

Colinda (BPE, BSc HEc (Nutrition), RD) is a registered dietitian who shares her knowledge of food and the science of nutrition to promote optimal health and wellness. As a nutrition educator with Alberta Milk she develops nutrition education resources and programs for health educators.

Article posted on August 1, 2016



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The Expert Says

Not all live, active cultures are probiotics. A probiotic must have a proven health benefit (i.e. the bacterial strain is known, was studied in humans and showed a health benefit).