In the age of hand sanitizer and antibiotics, many avoid bacteria in order to stay healthy, but research indicates that not all bacteria are bad.

“A probiotic is actually a substance made by a microorganism including bacteria and even fungi,” says Dr. Marla Shapiro, an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto Medical School and medical expert for CTV News. “It is these substances that confer health benefits.”

Though studies are now investigating how probiotics, often described as the good bacteria, can help everything from depression to allergies, some key benefits are seen in the treatment of bacterial vaginosis and gut conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.

For these conditions, Dr. Shapiro says that taking probiotics, in the appropriate doses, can be a proactive approach for maintaining and bettering a patient’s health.

Bettering bacterial vaginosis

A healthy body contains a balance of good and bad bacteria — a ratio that is affected by factors including diet, alcohol, stress, antibiotics, and even bowel movements. For women, when this equilibrium of bacteria in the vagina is thrown off, it can result in an infection known as bacterial vaginosis and symptoms including discharge, odor, pain, and itching.

The standard treatment for bacterial vaginosis is antibiotics, but Dr. Shapiro says that she has seen the pros of over-the-counter probiotics in resolving this condition.

“We often talk about the overuse of antibiotics and the threat of bacterial resistance with overuse,” says Dr. Shapiro, explaining that probiotics do not carry this same risk and are generally considered safe, with minimal side effects. “It is very helpful for patients with recurrent bacterial vaginosis, who understand their symptoms, to be able to self-treat with a readily available probiotic and avoid an office visit and often an oral antibiotic.”

A healthy helping

While probiotics are available as supplements, they also occur naturally in fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, sourdough bread, and some soft cheeses.

The benefits of probiotic foods were first observed in a study of Bulgarian peasants, linking their good health and longevity to their high intake of fermented milk products. Further research has since shown that foods containing probiotics, such as those listed above, can make a big difference for patients with gut problems. 

“When patients are troubled by irritable bowel syndrome, one of the things we really like to do is to see if we can manipulate their diet to help,” says Dr. Shapiro, such as adding one to three servings of a probiotic yogurt to their menu.

For men, women, and children with gut problems, Dr. Shapiro says that yogurt and other probiotic foods can be a natural and tasty alternative to prescription medications.