Most people still don’t realize that simply saying “probiotics are good for you” is akin to saying “medicine is good for you.”“There is a big difference between different probiotic strains and their effects,” says clinical pharmacist Dragana Skokovic-Sunjic of Hamilton Family Health Team.

“We are familiar with Lactobacillus acidophilus, for example, but not many understand that L. acidophilus is actually an entire family of distinct strains.”  There are hundreds of different strains of probiotics across dozens of different species, each with their own indications and levels of efficacy for various conditions.

So how is a consumer to choose?

With probiotics being available over the counter in Canada, and regulated in a substantially different way from traditional drugs, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. While probiotics in general are extremely safe, taking the wrong probiotic for your condition could be useless.

“Canada has been a world leader in probiotic research… Researchers in Calgary are even linking gut bacteria to obesity…”

While taking probiotics properly, ensuring that the helpful microorganisms can do their best work in your body, is just as important as taking the right probiotics in the first place. “You should always do your best to combine probiotics with prebiotics into what is known as a synbiotic,” explains alternative medicine expert Bryce Wylde. Prebiotics, like partially hydrolyzed guar gum, are essentially food for the probiotic organisms, which will help them to thrive and develop an active colony in your body.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult for the consumer to know which products have strong scientific evidence behind them and which do not. And, since the majority of specific probiotic strains are patented, the fact that clinical trials have shown the effectiveness of one strain in treating infectious diarrhea, IBS, or IBD does not automatically mean that any probiotic will do.

Instead, consumers must educate themselves to know which products have been scientifically proven to help treat an illness or risk unknowingly purchasing ineffective probiotics — your health care provider is your biggest asset in this regard.

Ensuring a healthy microbiome from day one

Just as different probiotics serve different purposes and treat different conditions in adults, there is a similar diversity in strains and products for pediatric use. And some of the most exciting research on probiotic use focuses on young children, who are still building their own unique microbiome.

A major study at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, for example, has shown dramatic results in using probiotics to treat colic in babies. Colic affects roughly a quarter of all infants and manifests as inconsolable crying with no apparent cause lasting for more than three hours a day, for days and weeks on end.

Though it has been recognized by doctors (and feared by parents) for centuries, there has been little success in developing treatments for colic, until recent research began to implicate the microbiome as a factor. In the Sick Kids study, newborns treated with L. reuteri drops saw a 53 percent reduction in minutes spent crying over a three week period, versus a decrease of just 16 percent for the placebo group.

The future of probiotics

For both adults and children, one thing that research is making increasingly clear is that the effects of the gut microbiome extend far beyond the gut itself. Doctors are looking into using probiotics to treat conditions as diverse as eczema, high cholesterol, and gingivitis. A recent mouse-based study out of McMaster University has even shown changes in brain function based on disruption in the gut microbiome, specifically implicating gut bacteria in depression and anxiety.

If Canadian hospitals and universities seem to come up a lot in this discussion, it is no accident. Gail Attara, CEO of the Gastrointestinal Society says that, “Over the past decade, Canada has been a world leader in probiotic research and implementation. Researchers in Calgary are even linking gut bacteria to obesity and looking to revolutionize our understanding of how the gut microbiome manages weight.”

Gail also recommends to take “advantage of this home-grown expertise by consulting with health professionals or trusted Canadian websites like and to find the right probiotic for such conditions as infant colic, IBD, and IBS.”
Empower yourself to make informed decisions about what probiotics can do for you. Your body will thank you.