Probiotics are living microorganisms, specifically bacteria (1;2). They can be consumed via supplements and certain foods like fermented vegetables, fortified goods, and cultured dairy products. We often discuss bacteria in relation to the wide array of diseases or illnesses that they cause. But, did you know that not all bacteria are “bad”? Some, like probiotics, may result in health benefits when given or taken appropriately (1;3-6). Click on the links below to learn more.
Antibiotics are important and heavily prescribed medications. However, they can alter the gut's balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria. This imbalance provides an opportunity for harmful Clostridium difficile bacteria to cause potentially fatal bowel diseases or diarrhea (7;8). Research shows that taking probiotics alongside prescribed antibiotics can decrease the risk of developing Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhea (3;4). Probiotics may also help in the treatment of other gastrointestinal issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome and chronic constipation (5).
Now let us add prebiotics to the mix. Prebiotics promote the growth of beneficial bacteria, like probiotics, by acting as a food source (9). Research shows that people taking prebiotic or probiotic supplements prior to getting their flu shot can experience greater protection against certain flu strains. Healthy older adults who take the supplements over a longer period may reap the greatest benefits from this strategy. More research is needed to support these findings, discuss safety, and confirm the most optimal supplement combinations, dosage, and timing (6).
Globally, upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs)—like the common cold—are a significant source of illness each year (10). Research shows that in people with healthy immune systems, probiotics may be effective at preventing acute URTIs, decreasing the average duration of an acute URTI episode, and reducing the number of people who use prescribed antibiotics for an acute URTI. Here, probiotics were often consumed with milk‐based food, as capsules, or through a powder formulation. More high-quality research is needed to increase our certainty in these findings, especially for older adults (1).
Consult your healthcare team before adopting a strategy that incorporates either probiotic or prebiotic consumption to determine if this is the best strategy for you. Consider optimal formulations, dose, and timing. Note not all supplements are safe for all people.