You've heard of antibiotics—drugs that kill harmful bacteria in your body. Now think of the opposite: probiotics—substances that encourage the growth of bacteria in your body because they're teaming with bacteria themselves. Why would anyone try such a thing? Because not all bacteria are harmful. Not only are some bacteria good, they're actually necessary to the healthy workings of your body, especially your intestines
. Sound disgusting? Don't gross out just yet. You've probably already swallowed probiotics without knowing it. They're found in yogurt, sauerkraut, and miso, among some other pretty tasty foods. You can also take probiotics in supplement form. back to top
What are probiotics used for?
Probiotics may be a good thing to take together with antibiotics. When you take antibiotics to treat, say, a urinary tract infection
, these drugs can wipe out not only the harmful bacteria in your body but also the good bacteria. If you've ever taken antibiotics, you may have noticed that these drugs can do a number on your digestive system—causing diarrhea, or even yeast infections
. Taking probiotics during the course of an antibiotics treatment and for a while afterward may keep enough good bacteria around to keep those problems from developing.
Some people take probiotics when traveling to other countries to help protect against "traveler's diarrhea" (an affliction also known as "Montezuma's revenge" because it's all-too-familiar to some travelers to Mexico). Traveler's diarrhea can happen when you swallow bacteria that your system isn't used to, such as the bacteria found in the water supplies of foreign countries. Taking probiotics may build up enough good bacteria to help balance out bad ones—and lessen the chance that a wrenching gut will ruin your vacation. back to top
What's the best form to use?
- Yogurt. The easiest way to take probiotics is to eat a lot of yogurt. When buying yogurt, be sure the label includes the words "live cultures" or "active cultures." This means there are live bacteria inside—the good kind. In addition, look for the words "National Yogurt Association," a seal that requires products to contain at least 10 million bacteria cells per cup. This may sound like a lot, but in bacteria-speak it's barely enough to offer any health benefit—although the more yogurt you eat, the more protection it offers.
- Supplements. For a real dose of high culture, some people go for a probiotic supplement, which you can find in a health-food store. Two of the most popular types, or strains, are Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus bifidus. Another strain, Lactobacillus rhamnosus (also called Lactobacillus GG), has been used in a number of recent studies. Some brands mix together a variety of different strains of "good" bacteria.
Look on the labels for probiotics that carry the highest number of bacteria—at least hundreds of millions, but preferably more than one billion. Choose one that has an enteric coating, which allows the bacteria to find their way down to your intestine before being released into your system.
Make sure you check expiration dates to find the freshest product possible. Refrigerated products are usually best. If you can't use a refrigerated product—such as when you're traveling—try to find a brand that guarantees that the number of bacteria inside will stay the same throughout the entire shelf life of the product.
Note that probiotic products may vary enormously in the amount of live bacteria they actually contain. Some may not contain anywhere near the amount they say they do. If you buy a probiotic supplement, try to do so at a good-quality health-food store and ask for help in finding a brand with a good reputation. back to top
How do I use them?
- When taking antibiotics: Eating a lot of yogurt while you're on these drugs may help ward off diarrhea or a yeast infection. Some people take stronger action by using a probiotic supplement, starting toward the end of their antibiotic treatment and continuing for a month or so after finishing the drug. Probiotic supplements should be used according to package instructions. A typical dose is one tablespoon of liquid supplements or one or two capsules.
- To prevent traveler's diarrhea: Some people take a probiotic supplement with meals when traveling to countries where traveler's diarrhea is likely. Use according to package instructions. A typical dose is one tablespoon of liquid supplements or one or two capsules. Be sure you also have a back-up plan on hand, such as Pepto-Bismol, an over-the-counter remedy for stomach upset (note that the Pepto-Bismol will turn your stools black!). "Montezuma's revenge" has been known to track people down no matter how careful they are. back to top
When traveling to foreign countries where traveler's diarrhea is a possibility, be sure to avoid drinking the local water (unless it has been boiled first) and eating foods washed in unboiled water. Probiotics will not prevent traveler's diarrhea by themselves. They will simply help support your digestive system and make it better able to fight off bad bacteria if you are accidentally exposed to them.
Be sure to tell your doctor or health professional if you are taking any herb or supplement.
The use of supplements is not recommended during pregnancy and breast-feeding except under the guidance of a health professional. back to top