Guide to Understanding Probiotics: When to Take Them & Are They Safe?

Probiotics have become superstars in the mainstream health world. You can find them in nearly every supermarket or health-related store.

They come in yogurt, cottage cheese, bread, and even straws. Yes, straws. But let’s get past the hype and talk about the questions that matter.

Who can take probiotics and when can you take them? What kind of probiotics can you take for what you’re dealing with? Can you drink alcohol while taking probiotics? And, most importantly, are probiotics safe?

We’re going to answer these questions in our complete guide to understanding probiotics.

What Are Probiotics?

We base our definition of probiotics on the internationally accepted definition: “Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when given in the right amounts, can give you legitimate health benefits.”

Also, remember that “probiotics” is a term that includes all different sorts of helpful bacteria. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are examples of this. These are two words you may see on the packaging of probiotics-rich foods.

Before we get into who can benefit from probiotics, we wanted to do a quick comparison of prebiotics and probiotics. Prebiotics are the food that probiotics eat.

Experts agree that fruits, vegetables and fiber they contain are excellent sources of prebiotics and promote good probiotic health.

Two Types of People Who Can Benefit from Probiotics

We can usually divide up the probiotics crowd into two people: the sick and the well. In other words, you can take probiotics as a supplemental treatment or as a preventative measure. Let’s unpack these two different groups and see where you fit in.

Taking Probiotics as a Supplement Treatment When You’re Sick

Probiotics are a popular remedy for digestive problems. In the studies we read, certain types of probiotics were most effective with inflamed bowel disorder (IBD), while others worked very well for diarrhea associated with taking antibiotics.

We recommend that you speak with your doctor about taking probiotics for digestive problems you have. They’ll help you know which probiotics and in what amounts will help you the most.

Taking Probiotics as a Preventative Measure When You’re Healthy

Not everyone who takes probiotics is sick. It’s kind of like how we take vitamins because we know they’re good for us, even though there are cases when our doctor tells us to take them because of a sickness or a vitamin deficiency.

A quick visit to your local grocery store will reveal dozens of foods and drinks infused with probiotics. Most of these products are designed for healthy people looking for a way to boost their digestive health and protect themselves from bacteria-related sicknesses in their gut.

As of late, probiotics have been hailed as a product for babies. We’ll take a look at that later.

Wait, Isn’t It Obvious Probiotics Are for the Sick and the Healthy?

Maybe, but it’s important to make the distinction between the two because a sick person should take probiotics under the supervision of a doctor.

A healthy person, on the other hand, can take probiotics without many side effects (although we still recommend you check with your physician before starting probiotics). And that leads us to the next section of our article.

When Should You Take Probiotics?

If you’re sick or healthy, probiotics can help you. But “sick” and “healthy” are general terms. Here are five specific examples of when it’s beneficial to take probiotics:

1. When You or Your Kids Are About to Start Antibiotics

About one in three people get diarrhea when they take a regiment of antibiotics, mostly because the medicine kills of all sorts of bacteria in your gut and causes an upheaval of your digestive system.

Studies have shown that taking Lactobacillus GG helped reduce antibiotics-associated diarrhea (AAD) by 60%. Adults with antibiotic-associated diarrhea have also benefited from probiotics.

2. When Your Little One Is a Baby (Maybe)

A study done by the University of Milan and the University of Paris found that babies who received probiotics were less likely to have the skin condition eczema. Even babies who took probiotics-infused formula saw lower eczema rates.

But, warning! This one study doesn’t mean you should give your baby probiotics and it definitely doesn’t mean you have to do it.

In fact, the journal American Family Physician pointed out that probiotics have not been proven to be of great benefit, while the American Academy of Pediatrics said probiotics are safe for kids and infants.

As always, talk with your pediatrician before starting your baby on probiotics.

3. When You’re Stressed or Traveling

In an interview with Women’s Health in 2014, Dr. Lisa Ganjhu, a gastroenterologist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, pointed out that taking probiotics is a good thing when you’re stressed or traveling. Why? Because these two factors can upset the balance of bacteria in our gut.

4. When You Talk With Your Doctor and He or She Says Okay

Probiotics can be a great tool for better health, but if you’re dealing with a digestive illness it’s best to talk with your doctor before taking them. They’ll be able to tell you which bacteria will be best for your particular situation.

5. When You Want to Add Some Healthy Bacteria to Your Diet

Mayo Clinic points out that taking probiotics when you’re healthy may be able to ward off the flu, yeast infections and urinary tract infections. It’s crucial that you keep to a daily schedule rather than taking them every once in a while. They could mess up the balance of your gut if you start and stop them.

What Kind of Probiotics Do You Need to Take?

This is the million-dollar question, the inquiry that everyone wants to know. Makes sense; we kind of tend toward the “magic bullet” remedy that will vanquish our illnesses and conditions with one quick swallow.

Unfortunately, it’s never that easy and probiotics are no different because there are so many different bacteria under the probiotics umbrella.

Probiotics When You’re Sick

Even though pinning down the perfect probiotic for your condition is difficult, it’s not impossible. We suggest you talk with your doctor about what types of probiotics to take for your condition.

If you really want to get technical about it, take a look at this list from the National Institutes of Health. It shows you exactly which types of bacteria helped with which sicknesses.

Probiotics When You’re Healthy

A mountain of probiotic products are going to tower before you when you go shopping. Recent trends have included probiotic bread and even probiotic straws. We take these products with a grain of salt because, as experts have pointed out, probiotics are living things and there’s no way of knowing how many bacteria survive the toaster or straw-packaging process.

We say stick with milk-based or fermented foods:

  • Kefir
  • Yogurt (Activia is a popular choice)
  • Cottage cheese
  • Pickles
  • Sauerkraut

If it’s supplements you want, you’ll need to remember a few important things:

  • Check the dosage. Anything between 10 and 20 million CFU’s is good.
  • Store it well. Probiotics are living things. A cool, dry environment is best.
  • Read the label. Your supplement should tell you the genus, species and strain of the bacteria in your supplement.
  • Sprinkle it in milk. In an interview with The Huffington Post, in 2014, MassGeneral Hospital for Children’s Dr. Patricia Hibberd said she recommends opening the pill and sprinkling it in milk. 

Also, check out our reviews we’ve done on popular probiotic supplements.

Can You Drink Alcohol While Taking Probiotics?

The simple answer to this question is, “Yes.”

However, exactly what happens after that is the part that is up for interpretation.

According to the University of North Florida Assistant Professor Dr. Andrea Arikawa, there are some probiotics that can metabolize acetaldehyde, the chemical responsible for making your drunk.

“Probiotic bacteria can metabolize acetaldehyde because they have the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase,” Arikawa said. “So, there may be a benefit of taking probiotics while drinking alcohol.”

However, this isn’t a license to pop a few probiotics before you get hammered. In fact, drinking too much can throw off the balance between your good and bad probiotics.

Dr. Krista Casazza, an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said that chronic booze consumption causes an overgrowth of bacteria in a particular section of your small intestines called the jejunum.

Because of this, she said, drinking could actually offset the effects of the probiotics you take.

“Taking supplemental probiotics with alcohol consumption would likely lead to attenuated (if any) benefit,” Casazza said.

Are Probiotics Safe? Are There Any Side Effects?

One of the beautiful things about probiotics is that they are a safe way to add bacteria to your diet if you’re healthy. We’ve run across many articles from medical experts who agree with us:

  • Licensed dietician Katherine Zeratsky, Mayo Clinic: “Side effects are rare, and most healthy adults can safely add foods that contain … probiotics to their diet.”
  • Dr. Patricia Hibberd, MassGeneral: “I think probiotics in supplements are generally pretty safe.”
  • American Academy of Pediatrics: “To date, these products seem to be safe for healthy infants and children.”

Who Should Not Take Probiotics

Now, for those who suffer from autoimmune diseases or have compromised immune systems, probiotics are not recommended and should only be taken if specifically told by your doctor to do it.

Bottom Line

To wrap up, remember that probiotics are helpful for the sick and for the healthy. They can be taken at certain times (when your stressed, traveling, taking antibiotics) or all the time. Just remember to maintain a regular dosage schedule.

And don’t forget that probiotics are best consumed in milk products and fermented vegetables like pickles and sauerkraut.

When it comes to safety, many experts agree that probiotics are safe if you’re healthy and aren’t suffering from a compromised immune system.

And, as always, if you have any doubts about a certain probiotics product or you just want to make sure you’re doing the right thing for your body, talk to your doctor.

» Related: A Guide to Buying Quality Probiotics

HighYa Research Team

The HighYa Research Team is passionate about helping you save money and make smarter purchasing decisions about everything the internet has to offer.