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Probiotics Are like Medicine

gut probiotics
gut probiotics
Catherine Mulvale

Catherine Mulvale

Director of Development Alliance for Education on Probiotics

Would you expect a birth control pill to relieve the pain if you had a headache? Of course, you wouldn’t. But unfortunately, too many people do not use similar logic when selecting probiotics. How often have you heard people say they are taking a probiotic but don’t know which one or why?

Probiotics are like medicine — each is unique and has been created to address a specific health issue. Unfortunately, when individuals try to select a product without guidance from an informed health care professional, they often choose a probiotic that is inappropriate — and therefore ineffective — for resolving symptoms that are bothering them.

Recent research supports the use of probiotics to manage many symptoms. In fact, certain probiotic strains have been shown to reduce the incidence and duration of the common cold, decrease the need for antibiotics for some respiratory infections, aid in weight management, support pediatric and maternal health, and help manage stress, anxiety and digestive symptoms.

Consumer confusion

Despite abundant evidence supporting the use of these popular, safe, and cost-effective supplements, many consumers are still confused and frustrated. They have good reason to feel this way. An overwhelming number of choices are available, and consumers need to understand what they are buying.

Too many people waste time and money on products that are supported by strong marketing campaigns but little or no scientific evidence. Don’t be fooled by claims that lead you to believe that more CFUs (colony forming units — usually in the billions), long lists of strains, refrigeration, or special coatings make one probiotic better than another. It’s important to remember that each strain is unique.

Strain matters


When selecting a probiotic, the most important factor is the strain. It’s imperative that the proper strain, or combination of strains, and the dose be matched to the specific ailment you are trying to resolve. Different strains of bacteria from the same species can have significantly different benefits. The name of any probiotic strain worthy of consideration will be comprised of three names that include the genus + species + strain that includes a number. For example, Lactobacillus (genus) acidophilus (species) GM 12385 (strain).

Selecting the proper probiotic

Below are some recommendations to help you confidently face those colourful shelves teeming with options and go about selecting the most appropriate probiotic to relieve your symptoms:

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Ask your health team or pharmacist what specific product has been scientifically proven to relieve your symptoms — don’t substitute.

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Ensure the recommended product label states the strain, number of CFUs at the expiration date, storage instructions, recommended dosage, expiry date, and Health Canada’s Natural Product Number (NPN), which confirms the product to be safe, effective, and of high quality.

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Use the free Canadian Probiotic Guide App (for iPhone and Android), created by the Alliance for Education on Probiotics (AEProbio) to help match your symptoms with the product best suited to provide relief.

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Note: always check with your doctor before taking a probiotic to ensure there is no potential for harmful interactions with other medications you may be taking

Most people only need to take a probiotic for 4 to 12 weeks. If symptoms return after you stop taking the probiotic, you could start taking it again.  

It is not necessary for healthy people with no symptoms to take a probiotic, just like it is not necessary for people who do not have an infection to take antibiotics. However, when you are suffering, you need relief and the proper probiotic could be the answer.

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