A common question that I get from new parents is: should my child be taking probiotics? As with any supplement or treatment, the answer should be individualized to each child’s specific health concerns and should be discussed with a healthcare professional. However, I’ll get you started by giving you some dos and don’ts of probiotic supplementation.
Probiotics are a combination of different live bacteria that are considered “good” for our overall health (compared to the bacteria that is “bad” and makes us sick). Our bodies are naturally full of probiotics and other bacteria that keep us healthy, often referred to as our microflora or microbiome. Probiotics are found in our digestive system, on our skin, and on many other mucous membranes throughout the body. They are available as a dietary supplement and are also found in fermented foods.
The most well known use for probiotics is to reduce infectious diarrhea and antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Similarly, they are helpful for reducing symptoms of bloating, gas, and diarrhea in children and adults with irritable bowel syndrome. Probiotics can also be used to address health concerns, such as colic, gas, frequent colds and upper respiratory tract infections, allergic symptoms, and eczema.
Do: Optimize the development of a healthy microflora from birth.
Babies have their first exposure to good bacteria through the mom’s vaginal microflora. Many things, including if they are delivered via cesarean birth or if the mother is on antibiotics prior to delivery, may affect this first exposure. It is possible that an infant-specific probiotic supplement will be beneficial in these situations. However, baby will also develop a strong microflora through breastfeeding and continued skin-to-skin contact with mom. Establishing a healthy microflora from the beginning of life can be associated with a decreased risk of allergies and obesity.
Don’t: Assume all probiotic supplements are created equal.
There is a large variety of different doses, strains, and routes of administration. The therapeutic dose depends highly on the indication for which it is being used but 5-40 billion live cultures is generally considered a good dose of probiotics. When looking at strains, consider whether you want a single strain or multi strain probiotic. Single strain probiotics are often marketed for specific health concerns. For example, lactobacillus rhamnosus and saccharomyces boulardii tend to be the preferred strains for antibiotic-associated diarrhea, while lactobacillus reuteri is more commonly used for colic in infants. Since our digestive tract contains many different strains of probiotics, the multi strain supplements may be more beneficial for balancing the microflora and promoting overall health. However, research into probiotics is still very new and constantly developing!
Do: Take probiotics with food.
To get the maximum benefit from your probiotic supplement, it is best to take it with food. This will allow more of the good bacteria to survive throughout the digestive tract. Probiotics generally come in either a capsule form, which can easily be swallowed prior to a meal, or a powder, which can be added to smoothies, yogurts, or other food items for ease of intake. Most probiotics have very little flavour and can be easily disguised in foods!
Don’t: Take at the same time as antibiotics, but do take them throughout a course of antibiotics.
It is recommended to take probiotics when you’ve been prescribed antibiotics; however, you don’t want to be taking them at the exact same time. Antibiotics can kill both good and bad bacteria so they may kill off some of the good bacteria in your digestive tract, as well as the probiotics in your supplement. To avoid this issue, it is generally recommended to take your probiotic supplement at least 2 hours after taking your antibiotic. Continuing your probiotic throughout the antibiotic treatment, and timing the intakes properly, is associated with a decreased risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhea in children and adults.
Do: Aim to get some probiotics from dietary sources.
Probiotics can be found in naturally fermented food sources, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha. If you eat fermented foods on a regular basis, it might not be necessary to add a probiotic supplement. The other way to maintain a healthy microflora through diet is to eat foods high in prebiotics. Prebiotics are foods that will provide fuel for the good bacteria in our intestines and are usually found in high fiber foods. Focus on lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as some of the top prebiotic sources including chicory root, inulin, dandelion greens, raw garlic, and raw onions.
Don’t: Assume you are getting a therapeutic dose of probiotics from yogurt.
Yogurt is commonly promoted as a health food due to the content of live bacterial cultures, or probiotics, present in most commercially available yogurts. However, it isn’t an optimal source of probiotics. First of all, the actual dose of probiotics in a serving of your average yogurt is very small and may not contain the most beneficial strains. Secondly, most yogurts are high in sugar, which counteracts the health benefit you’re getting from the probiotics. Thirdly, many children and adults are sensitive to dairy and encouraging them to eat yogurt may be detrimental. If you would like to get probiotics from your yogurt, try making your own at home! You can buy yogurt starter kits at many health food stores. Another option is to continue buying yogurt but opt for plain yogurt to decrease the sugar content and add a probiotic powder to get the proper dose.
Do: Get advice on taking a supplement.
Any supplements that contain live cultures of “good” bacteria are considered probiotic supplements. Before starting your child on a probiotic supplement, please make sure you check the safety and effectiveness with your naturopathic doctor or medical doctor. I highly recommend getting proper advice from a healthcare professional so that you can spend your supplement budget wisely and make sure you’re purchasing one that has the highest likelihood of being effective for you and your family.
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