There’s hardly a person who hasn’t had to take antibiotics at one point or another to fight off a bacterial infection. Antibiotics are highly effective and important medications, but they come with their fair share of side effects.
Since antibiotics kill all bacteria — good and bad — one of the most common side effects is digestive upset. This is because your digestive system is home to vast colonies of bacteria, including friendly bacteria that aid in digestion and absorption of nutrients.
When these good guys are killed off along with the pathogenic ones, your digestive system takes a hit, which most commonly results in diarrhea. In fact, by some estimates, 30 percent of patients who use antibiotics experience diarrhea as a side effect.
Probiotics are microorganisms that can restore bacterial balance in your body. They help replace the good bugs that are removed along with the bad bugs during antibiotic treatment. But questions have come up about how effective probiotics really are in helping to prevent or treat antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
For this reason researchers in southern California conducted a meta-analysis of existing studies that examined probiotics’ effects on antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
Fight Diarrhea With Friendly Bugs
The researchers found an astounding 15,214 studies on probiotic use, and they narrowed it down to 82 relevant studies, with a total of 11,811 participants. In most studies, the probiotic interventions were with Lactobacillus, either with or without another friendly bacteria called Bifidobacterium. A few studies used other probiotic strains like Saccharomyces boulardii, Enterococcus, Streptococcus or Bacillus.
After review, researchers determined that there is a statistically significant association between the use of probiotics and the reduction of antibiotic-associated diarrhea among all age groups (children, adults and elderly adults).
So how can you get the probiotics you need to prevent or treat diarrhea, or to keep your digestive tract healthy in general?
In the past several years, we’ve begun to see probiotics in yogurts being marketed as digestive aids. The live cultures in yogurt are a great source of probiotics, but unfortunately, most yogurts on the market contain a lot of sugar or artificial sweeteners, which oftentimes cancels out all the good that the live cultures can provide.
When buying yogurt, your best option is to choose a plain, unflavored, organic variety and sweeten it yourself with fresh fruit, honey or applesauce.
Another wonderful dairy source of probiotics is kefir, which is available in the yogurt section of your grocery store. As with yogurt, opt for the unflavored variety of kefir and use it to make smoothies.
But for the freshest, most delicious yogurt — with the richest source of probiotics –consider making your own using a yogurt maker and live cultures.
If you’re not a fan of dairy, then other fermented foods like sauerkraut, pickled vegetables like cucumbers, and Korean kimchi, are perfect nondairy probiotic sources. The microbes involved in the fermentation process are what provide the probiotic punch that makes these foods so healthy.
You can buy fermented foods at most grocery stores, but the problem is that many of these products are pasteurized after they are fermented. Pasteurization kills the bad bacteria, along with the friendly lactic acid bacteria, rendering the food pretty much useless when it comes to probiotic power.
The solution is to ferment your own food. You can easily make your own sauerkraut and pickle your own vegetables. There are hundreds of recipes online, but here are two good places to start:
Of course, if fermented foods don’t appeal to you, you can always take a probiotic supplement to boost the beneficial bacteria in your gut.
To find the highest quality probiotic, look for these characteristics:
1. It is formulated with pearl or beadlet technology, or in a controlled-release tablet. These special coatings ensure that at least a billion of the live beneficial bacteria survive the harsh, acidic environment in your stomach so they can get to work in your intestines.
2. It has an expiration date so that you know how long the bacteria will remain potent and useful.
 Hempel S et al. Probiotics for the Prevention and Treatment of Antibiotic-Associated Diarrhea — A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. JAMA. 2012;307(18):1959–69.