Within our guts are trillions of bacteria that we now understand to have a tremendous impact on our health. Having many diverse and different kinds of bacteria living within the gut is associated with human health. Disruption of this delicate ecosystem and a loss of diversity have been linked to numerous health issues, including allergies, asthma, infections, obesity, constipation, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), and colon cancer. Research aimed at understanding the link between gut microbes and human health has great potential to identify new ways to improve human health by altering the gut microbiota.

Probiotics are defined as live microorganisms that when taken confer a health benefit. Probiotics can be taken as dietary supplements in the form of capsules, pills, powder, or can be obtained through fortified yogurts and other foods as well as fermented milk products. There are many different types of probiotics, but the most commonly used organisms include strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.

Unfortunately, many Canadians are still misinformed about probiotics and often make choices based on hearsay. For example, a woman looking to get relief from irritable bowel syndrome might end up taking a product with 12 “probiotic strains” never tested for this purpose. “Some people select a product as it seems to have more strains,” Dr. Reid cautions. “More is not necessarily better. It’s the clinical proof that counts”.  On the other end of the spectrum, probiotic foods & beverages like probiotic yogurts may not be all you think they are. That’s because with yogurt there aren’t any guarantees on what strains you’re getting or how many live cultures will be there when you eat it. Even in yogurts that claim live and active cultures, they may die off before you get a chance to consume it.  Not to mention all the sugar, fat and calories. Many probiotic-enriched yogurts actually recommend you eat three cups a day to meet the probiotic levels needed to feel any digestive health benefits. As a result, the pounds and calories can start to add up quickly!

Probiotics act through many ways, including stimulating the immune system, helping maintain a strong gut barrier function, displacing pathogens, and modulating the nervous system. Benefits of probiotic health supplements appear to reach far beyond simply gut health. Some of the well-researched uses of probiotics in gut health include infectious diarrhea, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, prevention of ssC.difficile associated diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome.

“In children, probiotics have been shown to help reduce the risk for various diseases/conditions, such as infectious diarrhea caused by infections, or antibiotic-associated diarrhea, help with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, treat infantile colic, and prevent necrotizing enterocolitis in preterm infants. Certainly, probiotics can be taken prophylactically, as probiotics are considered a product that is generally recognized as safe.” Says Kim Chau Post-Doctoral Fellow | Surette Lab Dept. of Medicine Dept. of Health Research Methods, Evidence, & Impact, Farncombe Family Digestive Health Research Institute at McMaster University.

In addition to improving digestive health, research has shown benefits in immune health, reducing the risk for common infectious diseases, lowering fasting blood sugar in Type 2 diabetics, lowering bad cholesterol, and preventing eczema. Probiotics can be taken to help maintain a balanced gut microbiota, as well as used to help in the treatment of certain digestive conditions. However, it is important that the proper strain of probiotic be taken for the appropriate condition.

“For most probiotics, it may take approximately 4 to 7 days of consecutive daily use before beneficial effects are noticed. In order to reap probiotic benefits, it must be taken continuously because most probiotic bacteria do not take up permanent resident in the gut. It disappears, usually between 1 to 2 weeks, once stop taking the probiotic. “Mentions Dr. Chau.

For instance, Lactobacillus GG is the #1 clinically-studied probiotic strain in the world and has been shown to be effective in preventing antibiotic-associated diarrhea in both adults and children as well as promoting overall healthy gut flora for broader immune and overall wellness benefits, while Bifidobacterium longum infantis 3562 has shown effectiveness in relieving not only gut symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, but also improving depression and quality of life in these patients.

Indeed, several recent research findings have shown probiotics to alter brain function in individuals. Although more research is required, these fascinating observations suggest that microbes in our guts can have far-reaching effects throughout the body for both children and adults.