Going ‘Pro’: A Registered Dietitian’s Guide to Probiotics
Many of us are always looking for ways to live healthier and feel our best. But sometimes our it means our heads haven’t caught up with our, er, wallets.
Let’s get real for a moment… Show of hands, who’s bought an omega-3 fish oil before even knowing what it did for our body (hint, it helps with inflammation). The things we’ll do in the name of health!
Probiotics are much the same. We hear they are good for us, but what they actually do in our body is a little fuzzy.
In the spirit of education, and the popularity of probiotics, let’s break down what probiotics are (and more importantly how they help) so you can speak with confidence about them next time you’re out with friends and the topic swings to digestive health (that’s common, right?!)
The Literal Definition of a Probiotic
As this is a guide to understanding probiotics, we’ve got to start with some foundations.
The word probiotic is made up of:
pro– meaning “for”
biotic meaning “life”
So probiotic means “for life”.
Most of us understand that probiotics are bacteria, but they aren’t just any bacteria! Just like we now realize that not all bacteria will make us sick, not all bacteria in fancy bottles meet the true definition of a probiotic.
Let’s go a little deeper, shall we?
The True Definition of a Probiotic
The World Health Organization defines probiotics this way:
“Probiotics are live microorganisms, which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.”
Seems simple, right? Deceptively so! Maybe too, easy? Let’s break it down a little more.
“Probiotics are live microorganisms…”
Right off the bat, probiotics need to be alive; which is why you are right to be wary of probiotics that may have been languishing on the store shelf for months.
“Probiotics are live microorganisms that need to be administered in adequate amounts…”
‘Adequate amounts’ – this is a bigger issue that you might think. It means that if Probiotic X was effective in the research at a dosage of 25 billion, but the manufacturer sells it at a less expensive 1 billion, it doesn’t meet the definition.
“Probiotics are live microorganisms that need to be administered in adequate amounts and must confer a health benefit on the host.”
Notice also that the definition states that probiotics must confer a health benefit on the host. Only those bacteria that have a positive impact on your health can truly be called a probiotic.
How do you know for sure that a specific type of bacteria will provide this positive effect? By looking at human clinical trials. Surprisingly, some people use a probiotic for years without knowing if it’s working. If a probiotic is working for you, you can feel it. It’s one of the reasons why I love using Bio-K+: it is proven to work in multiple clinical trials – and when you take it, you can feel it.
Wait. Should Everyone Use a Probiotic? How to Know When to Supplement with One?
How do we know if we need a probiotic? The answer is simple: if you have a condition that can be linked to an imbalanced intestinal flora, a probiotic is a really good idea.
Take a look at all of the health concerns that probiotics may benefit based on the current research:
- Digestive health: chronic bloating, diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease
- Chronic inflammatory or immune-related concerns: autoimmunity, arthritis, frequent infection, cold and flu
- Skin conditions: acne, rosacea, eczema, psoriasis
- Allergic conditions: food + environmental allergy, asthma
- Mental wellbeing: depression, anxiety
How can a probiotic be of potential benefit in such a diverse range of conditions? Because of the connection between the gut – and the bacteria that live in it – and the immune and nervous systems.
But, How Does Gut Bacteria Play a Role in So Many Health Issues?
Many of these conditions we just mentioned have an inflammatory component.
Inflammation is an immune response.
80% of your immune system lives in your digestive tract.
There is constant communication between the immune system and the bacteria living in your gut. Gut bacteria have the potential to down or up-regulate your inflammatory response. Some bacteria can degrade your gut barrier, sending your immune system into a frenzy, while others can help repair that barrier. Certain bacteria can even augment your production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, which has an impact on mental wellbeing but also governs the natural movement (motility) of the gut.
Other Health Considerations That May Benefit from A Probiotic
Another important role that probiotics can play is in guarding you against the side effects of certain medications. For example, the long-term use of proton pump inhibitors, which are commonly prescribed for reflux, can put you at risk for infection with Clostridium difficile, an anti-biotic resistant bacterium that can be deadly.
Broad-spectrum antibiotic use is another medication that is best paired with a probiotic, as antibiotics wipe out the good bacteria as it kills the infectious bacteria – which can set you up for long-term intestinal imbalance.
Bio-K+ is unique in that it is the only probiotic in Canada that is Health Canada approved as prevention for both antibiotic-associated diarrhea and Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhea. If you have to take an antibiotic, take 1 to 2 Bio-K+ Strong capsules two hours after one of your daily antibiotic dosages, every day of your antibiotic therapy and for five days after to substantially reduce your risk of side effects from antibiotic use.
For other conditions, there are less clear cut guidelines about how long to take a probiotic. Give a probiotic the time to see if it’s of benefit; many conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or eczema stem from long-term issues with inflammation or dysbiosis, and it does take time for balance to be restored so the immune system can settle down.
What to Look for When Choosing a Probiotic
If you go to the grocery, health food store or pharmacy, there are dozens of probiotic products available. It would not be unreasonable to assume, then, that all probiotic products on the market have gone through human clinical trials. Unfortunately, that is completely and utterly wrong.
How can this be?
Health Canada allows a product to be labelled as a probiotic as long as it contains an approved strain. Health Canada does not require the company to do human clinical trials with the finished product. In fact, only a handful of probiotic products are actually clinically tested.
How do you know? Look for the research. I recommend that checking out Probiotic Chart, which is a third-party, peer-reviewed list of every probiotic on the market in Canada that has good quality research (look for level I + II evidence…you’ll see Bio-K+ there!). It’s an excellent, less biased source of information that is all about the science (because when it comes to probiotics, science counts).
What makes Bio-K+ unique is that it meets the true definition of a probiotic. The same drinkable liquid or capsule you buy in the store is the same product that is used in clinical trials.
It's also a good idea to ensure that the product you are buying is properly stored; most of the time, that means it’s refrigerated. This helps protect the bacteria from die off, even if it sits on the fridge shelf for a while. As a fresh food, drinkable Bio-K+ must always be refrigerated.
You can also find Bio-K+ capsules in the refrigerator section; the expiry date on the package is a guarantee of colony forming units (aka CFUs) under refrigerated conditions. However, through testing, we know that Bio-K+ capsules are shelf-stable for three months so if you wish to take it home and store it on your counter, you can.
Our interest in probiotics will only continue to grow as we learn more about how they can be a critical tool in caring for our health; however, not all products are of the same quality or efficacy. When looking for a probiotic, choose a high potency, clinically verified product like Bio-K+ and see how good you can feel!
Do you have more questions on probiotics? Let us know in comments below! For more information on digestive health, probiotics and Bio-K+, join our community. Click here to find the closest point of sale. Contact us or find us on Facebook and Instagram.