If you’ve ever had a severe infection caused by a harmful form of bacteria, your doctor has probably prescribed antibiotics. These are powerful, effective drugs that rid the body of pathogenic bacteria, helping you recover from an illness. But as necessary as these medications may be, they not only kill bad bacteria but good ones as well – the ones that help support our digestive and immune systems. That’s why if you’re on an antibiotic, and your doctor says it’s okay, you should seriously consider taking a probiotic as well, in order to ensure you have enough beneficial microbes in your system.
Probiotic Products and Antibiotic Diarrhea
When antibiotics eradicate good bacteria, this sometimes allows harmful bacteria to take over the gastrointestinal tract, also known as the “gut.” One type of bad bacteria in particular, known as Clostridium difficile (C. difficile), can thrive in the gut when there are not enough good bacteria to keep it in check. This can lead to a severe bout of diarrhea that, in some instances, can even be life threatening. Many people who take antibiotics suffer a side effect known as “antibiotic-associated diarrhea,” or AAD.1
This is the main reason why many experts suggest that anyone on antibiotics should take a probiotic as well. Probiotics have been shown to help reduce the symptoms of AAD, and, in some cases, to prevent it entirely.2 Probiotics help increase the number of beneficial bacteria and other good microbes in the gut so that they can balance out the harmful ones. They also replace the good bacteria that are killed by antibiotics.
Choosing the Right Probiotic
While good bacteria can be found in certain foods such as sauerkraut, yogurt and others, most people prefer to use probiotic supplements such as drinks, powders, and capsules. But you can’t just go online or go to your local pharmacy and choose any probiotic in order to help offset the effects of antibiotics. It’s very important that you take your time and do some research to make sure you’re getting a product that will do what you need it to do. Here are some tips to help you make the right choice.
Look at the microbes contained in the product you’re buying – You need to choose a probiotic that has the specific microbes that will help you get over your bout of AAD – and not just any microbe will do. Look for products that contain a type of yeast known as Saccharomyces boulardii. Because antibiotics kill bacteria, not yeasts, S. boulardii will be able to survive in the gut. This is a very well researched probiotic, and there is a substantial body of evidence that shows it can prevent AAD by inhibiting the growth of C. difficile.3
Take the right dose – It’s also very important to make sure you are getting the right amount of beneficial microbes into your gut – and the amount contained in different probiotic products can vary widely. Always look to see how many CFUs (colony-forming units) of bacteria and other microbes are included in each dose. Some products, for example, contain 1 billion CFUs in each serving while others have 30 billion or even more. Research indicates that children should receive at least 5 billion CFUs per dose, but no such guidelines have been established for adults.4 Most manufacturer labels will suggest taking two doses a day in order to obtain the optimum amount of beneficial microbes.
Make sure the probiotics are alive – This would seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how many probiotic products are basically worthless because the microbes inside of them are dead. Some manufacturers of probiotic products can afford advanced quality control processes, and some can’t. Some products, for example, have labels that state something like “viable at the time of manufacture.” This means that the microbes were alive when the product was made, but that’s no guarantee they’ll still be alive when you ingest them. If, on the other hand, the label says “viable until expiration date” or something similar, you should be okay. Look closely at what the labels state. Some will say that the product needs to be refrigerated, while others will say the microbes have been freeze-dried. This means that the microbes will come back to life when ingested. As long as you store the product in a cool, dry place, it should do its job.
Be careful when using a probiotic powder – Powdered supplements should only be used with cold liquids or foods. If they are exposed to heat, the probiotics inside of them will die unless the label states that they are heat resistant.
Keep taking probiotics after you’ve finished taking antibiotics – The reason is that AAD can develop several weeks after an antibiotic regimen is complete. It will also take your beneficial bacteria a long time to regenerate inside the gut. Taking probiotics can help ensure that there is a good balance between beneficial and harmful bacteria in your digestive system.
Try to incorporate probiotic-rich foods into your diet – In addition to supplements, try diversifying the types of beneficial bacteria in your gut by also eating foods that contain a wide variety of probiotics. These include the aforementioned yogurt and sauerkraut, as well as others such as miso soup and kefir (milk fermented with good bacteria). Look for products that are non-pasteurized, because the pasteurization process kills bacteria.
Talk to Your Doctor
It’s extremely important to make sure you talk to your doctor first before you start any sort of probiotic regimen, especially if you’re suffering from a serious illness. The reason is that probiotics have been known to cause health complications in people who have compromised immune systems. If, however, you are generally in good health, you should be able to take probiotics with no worries. Be sure to discuss your plans to take a probiotic with your doctor anyway just to stay on the safe side.
It’s possible that it some point, you’ll be prescribed an antibiotic for an infection. If this happens, consider adding a probiotic to your daily regimen. Doing so may help to keep your gut microflora in balance by replenishing “good” bacteria killed off by the antibiotic. This could prevent (or at least lessen the severity of) a potentially debilitating bout of antibiotic-associated diarrhea.