These microscopic bugs normally live in your intestine, where they serve as a healthy, helpful part of the microbiome, or the mix of bacteria in the gut. They also occur naturally in fermented foods like cheese and yogurt. The belief is that when bifidobacteria are grown outside the body and consumed through food or supplements, they help repopulate your gut with “good bacteria.”
The microbiome has been shown to carry out a number of important functions; it helps break down food and take in nutrients, regulate the immune system, and keep other important systems in balance. When the ratio of “good” to “bad” bacteria gets out of whack, a number of ill effects crop up, including gastrointestinal issues. Crop-dusting the gut with bifidobacteria, a verified good guy, can help bring the digestive system back into balance.
“Bifidobacteria is a very beneficial probiotic,” says Darcy McConnell, MD, a functional medicine physician at the Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, NY. Research has linked it with the prevention and relief of constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and ulcerative colitis, and Dr. McConnell prescribes it for treating eczema and ulcerative colitis.
But when do you need a probiotic? When you notice a problem or, more critically, after you've had your microbiome wiped out as a result of chemotherapy, radiation, diarrhea, or—perhaps most commonly—antibiotics.
How to Use It
“It’s a good idea to take probiotics during and after a course of antibiotics,” Dr. McConnell says. But instead of taking the supplement alongside the antibiotic, build in a cushion of two hours or more between the two pills. Otherwise, the antibiotic will kill the bifidobacteria before the healthy bug has a chance to do any good. “Continue the probiotics at least two weeks after finishing the course of antibiotics,” says Dr. McConnell. And if you want to continue taking them regularly, switch brands and strains of probiotic every three to six months to sprinkle your gut with a variety of good bugs.