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Overview of Probiotics

By: Shawna Bailey Harris, Pharm.D.

Today probiotic is a term almost everyone is familiar with but back in 2009 only 9% of Americans were familiar with the term probiotic.  It wasn’t until the 1990’s that researchers began looking at probiotics to understand what role they play in our bodies.  Scientists have discovered that these “friendly bacteria” play a big role in our digestion and overall health.  According to the World Health Organization, Probiotics offer a health benefit to humans.  They are necessary for the breakdown of the foods we eat, aiding in glucose and cholesterol metabolism, just to name a few.  Some studies show they may even lower your risk of gastrointestinal cancers.  Today, probiotics have demonstrated health benefits for humans and are aggressively being studied.

What is a Probiotic?

Probiotics consist mostly of bacteria and yeast.  There are over 1 Trillion (yes, that is a “T”) live or “active” microorganisms throughout our digestive, urinary and genital systems.  These microorganisms help us digest the foods we eat on a daily basis.  Probiotics help support a healthy balance of good bacteria (also known as normal flora) which is associated with healthy GI function and immune system wellness.  The Word Health Organization supports the use of probiotics to alleviate mild GI related symptoms.  Different bacteria and yeast have different functions throughout our bodies and are beneficial to humans.  Think of it as these active organisms helping to keep the bad bacteria in check in our bodies.

Are all Probiotics the Same?

No, not all probiotics are the same.  It is important to look at the labels of the probiotics you find on the shelves in pharmacies and health food stores.  Different bacteria do different things in our gastrointestinal tract (GI Tract).  Some work only in the stomach while others work in the large intestine.  The two most common families of bacteria are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium while the most common yeast found in probiotics is the Saccharomyces family.

While there are different individual strains within these families, each working a little differently, below is an overview of the role each plays:

Lactobacillus is the most commonly found bacteria in probiotics.  You can find it in supplements, capsules, yogurts and other fermented foods.  It is most commonly used in treating diarrhea caused by the rotavirus or traveler’s diarrhea.  It also aids in the digestion of lactose, the sugar in milk. Lactobacillus is suggested to prevent diarrhea associated with antibiotic use.

It is recommended that when starting an antibiotic you begin a Lactobacillus probiotic the day you begin antibiotic therapy and continue with the probiotic until 2 weeks after completing the antibiotic regime.


Bifidobacterium is a bacterium that is recommended to help with symptoms related to IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).  Because Bifidobacterium is known to decrease the production of yeast, it is a great probiotic to help with reoccurring vaginal or urogenital yeast infections.  If you are prone to getting UTI’s (Urinary Tract Infections) following a round of antibiotics, this would be a great probiotic to use while taking the antibiotic.

Saccharomyces is a type of yeast and is helpful with a severe type of diarrhea known as Clostridium difficile. Saccharomyces is also useful for treating acne, H. Pylori and traveler’s diarrhea.

When do I take a Probiotic?

Lactobacillus is helpful in treating diarrhea most commonly due to a recent round of antibiotics or the rotavirus. It is recommended starting a probiotic on the first day of taking the antibiotics and continue taking the probiotic until 2 weeks after completing the antibiotics.  They also recommend taking the probiotic first then taking the antibiotic 2 hours later.

If you suffer from IBS or yeast infections, you could start a probiotic containing Bifidobacterium.  Take 1 capsule daily.

If you need a probiotic due to a recent H. Pylori infection or are suffering from traveler’s diarrhea, start taking a probiotic as soon as possible and continue until symptoms have resolved.

Does it Matter Which Probiotic I take?

As with many things in life, quality of the probiotic is more important than quantity. You want to make sure you choose a quality brand that contains a high number of live cultures. Below is a chart that contains some popular options:


Reason to Use




  • Antibiotic Use
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Supports Digestion and Nutrient Absorption
  • Supports Bowel Regularity
  • Lactobacillus acidophilus
  • Lactobacillus paracasei
  • Bifidobacterium bifidum
  • Saccharomyces boulardi


  • Antibiotic Use
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Yeast infections
  • Bifidobacterium


  • Antibiotic Use
  • Rotavirus Associated Diarrhea
  • Lactobacillus


  • Acne
  • H. Pylori
  • Travelers Diarrhea
  • Saccharomyces

Phillips Colon Health

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Antibiotic Use
  • Rotavirus
  • Lactobacillus
  • Bifidobacterium