How much do you know about probiotics (healthy bacteria)?

“Bacteria have a reputation for causing disease, so the idea of tossing down a few billion a day for your health might seem — literally and figuratively — hard to swallow. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that you can treat and even prevent some illnesses with foods and supplements containing certain kinds of live bacteria.”  A quote from the The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide introduces readers to probiotics.

Dr. Joseph Mercola in his newsletter writes: “Your inner ecosystem influences countless aspects of your health.  Your body contains about 100 trillion bacteria -- more than 10 times the number of cells you have in your entire body. It's now quite clear that the type and quantity of micro-organisms in your gut interact with your body in ways that can either prevent or encourage the development of many diseases.  The ideal ratio between the bacteria in your gut is 85 percent ‘good’ and 15 percent ‘bad.’ Maintaining this optimal ratio is essential for good health, as probiotics (healthy bacteria) has over 30 beneficial pharmacological actions that we know of.”

We know that antibiotics (meaning against bacteria) are commonly taken to destroy bacteria which cause illness.  How much do you know about probiotics (healthy bacteria)?  Even though we tend to think of bacteria as being bad, most of the bacteria in the intestinal tract help to keep us well.  The problem with antibiotics is they also destroy the gut-dwelling bacteria that keep harmful microorganisms in check, aid digestion and nutrient absorption, and strengthen immunity.

Have you noticed that people, especially children, who are treated for infections with antibiotics on a regular basis get sick often?  It seems many are taking antibiotics most of the time.  Parents are busy and may want to speed up healing with antibiotics.  It is difficult to watch little ones be sick.  However, they may not be aware that medicating frequently can leave the child open for frequent illness because of the destruction of protective beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract.  To restore healthy intestinal flora in children requires a probiotic that is specifically for their age.

Two experiences helped me learn about probiotics (supplements which help restore beneficial bacteria).  A woman, who had major heart   surgery and complications, required large amounts of antibiotics to save her life during a month of hospitalization.  She came home with such severe diarrhea she could not leave the house.  A health food store owner in another town recommended that she take the probiotic, Healthy Trinity, and instead of taking the recommended 1 capsule daily, that she take 6.  After three days, her diarrhea cleared up and she maintained on only one capsule daily.  She said if she missed as little as three days, the condition started recurring. 

            Another woman, after taking antibiotics, had a similar result.  Her doctor actually recommended a probiotic, which she bought.  He told her to take one per day, as directed on the bottle.  In a few days she called saying it had not helped her.  When she began taking one upon awakening on an empty stomach and two before each meal, her condition improved in a few days.

            Some digestive disease specialists are recommending probiotics for disorders that frustrate conventional medicine, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Since the mid-1990s, clinical studies have established that probiotic therapy can help treat several gastrointestinal ills, delay the development of allergies in children, and treat and prevent vaginal and urinary infections in women.           

             In the United States, most probiotics are sold as dietary supplements, which do not undergo the testing and approval process that drugs do.  Manufacturers are responsible for making sure they are safe before they are marketed and that any claims made on the label are true.  Because there is no guarantee that the types of bacteria listed on the label are effective for the condition for which you are taking them, it is important to get a quality product.  Buying cheap probiotics, as with many other supplements, are not likely to provide positive results.  More research needs to be done to determine which strains are useful for particular conditions.  Meanwhile, we can learn and experiment with different strains of bacteria that can bring amazing improvement in many digestive disturbances and help protect us from invading disease causing bacteria.

            Whether child or adult, probiotics must always be taken at least two hours away from taking an antibiotic.  Otherwise, the antibiotic will kill the good bacteria in the probiotic and it will be ineffective in rebalancing the intestinal tract.

             Antibiotics are not the only destroyers of good gut bacteria.  A poor diet of processed foods that are responsible for the obesity epidemic also destroys good bacteria in the intestinal tract.  Studies of people with obesity found that people who are obese have less beneficial bacteria than those of normal weight. 

            Asking your primary care provider about probiotics may result in his encouraging you to take them or s/he may just say they won’t help or hurt so take them if you want to.  If you buy a cheap brand, they probably won’t help.  They can be mostly fillers, and some not so healthy binders, preservatives, etc.  Good supplements must be handled with care, especially probiotics.  These are live cultures that can easily be destroyed. 

(Janice Norris lives in Heber Springs, has a B.S. in home economics from Murray State University, owned and operated health food stores in Illinois and Heber Springs, and wrote a weekly column in Illinois for 15 years. She can be reached at