By now you probably know that using probiotics nourishes your gut bacteria, improving your digestive health, immune system, and mental health. "Probiotics are live microorganisms which are designed to help in providing beneficial digestive properties in individuals who may suffer from a compromised gut," says Ron Ledoux, DC, CCN, the CEO of Blue Sky Vitamin. They're found in a wide range of fermented foods like yogurt, aged cheese, pickles, and kombucha.
Unfortunately, because of all the hype around the word "probiotic," brand marketing for this ingredient has gone the way of the "fat-free" movement. Many companies are adding it into their products and touting its benefits without using scientifically formulated probiotics. Reliable brands test and study their formulations in labs over and over to check for their products' safety and reliability.
Before you add probiotics to your daily diet, here are seven facts you need to know.
01. Not All Probiotics are Created Equal
Probiotics are food or dietary supplements containing live bacteria that replace or add to the beneficial bacteria normally found in your gastrointestinal tract. Not all probiotics are the same, though—there are literally hundreds of substrains, only about a dozen of which have been thoroughly researched for their effects and efficacy.
Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN, LD, a food and nutrition blogger at Lively Table, tells us, "Most of the probiotics studied and available at this time belong to the groups Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. The research is still in early stages of specific uses for different strains, and just because one strain is effective for one condition, like diarrhea, doesn't mean other strains will also be effective for that same condition." Those that don't list substrains are a red flag because they could be using generic (and cheaper) substrains that haven't been clinically studied. The most researched probiotic substrains for gut health are L. Acidophilus, L. Rhamnosus, L. Helveticus, B. Infantis, B. Lactis, and Lactogg.
02. Avoid Processed Foods with Probiotics
Rebecca Lee, a registered nurse from NYC and founder of the natural health resource RemediesForMe.com, says, "Most often, processed foods are filled with high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and other harmful ingredients." Plus, it's extremely hard to keep probiotics alive in packaged foods. "These live bacteria are easily destroyed by air and moisture. There is no way to measure exactly how many probiotics actually survive throughout the entire packaging process, and the FDA currently doesn't have any regulations on this."
One culprit of packaged food with probiotics is yogurt. Popular commercial yogurts advertised as metabolism-boosting or "active" probiotic-filled "go through a high-heat sterilization process during manufacturing to create a longer shelf life. By the time they get to you, the 'active' cultures or probiotics are already dead and are no longer favorable," Lee warns.
03. Choose the Specific Probiotic for Your Concerns
Ledoux recommends researching individual products and asking your doctor to help you find the right probiotic for you. "There are several different types of probiotic strains designed specifically for individual health concerns/issues. Some examples include formulas for immune support, weight control, respiratory health, support for children and infants, etc."
04. Good Probiotics Have Scientific Support
Ledoux, who has been a doctor of chiropractic and certified clinical nutritionist for nineteen years, is passionate about using nutritional supplements the right way. He recommends only using premium quality probiotics from doctor-trusted brands. "Trusted brand manufacturers ensure product potency, use high-grade ingredients, and have reputable scientific support for their products." To spot a solid probiotic, look for:
- The genus, species, and strain of the probiotic (e.g., Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG)
- The number of organisms that will be alive by the use-by date (colony-forming units, or CFUs)
- The dose or serving size
- The company name and contact information
- An independent, third-party certifier, like ConsumerLab or the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP)
- On the company website, look for studies that back up the product's health claims
If you choose yogurt or another dairy food, look on the label for the phrase "contains live active cultures" or "contains probiotics."
05. Don’t Go Overboard
With probiotics, you can have too much of a good thing. "Never use more than the recommended intake," Ledoux advises. "An introduction of too many live organisms may have the reverse effect and can cause a compromised intestinal tract that may allow for an overgrowth of bad bacteria."
06. Store and Use Probiotics as Directed
Since probiotics are live bacteria cultures, it's important to follow the storage temperature directions on the label to ensure potency through the expiration life of the probiotic, says Ledoux. And since probiotics in refrigerated foods can be damaged in transit, invest in one formulated to withstand room temperature.
07. Taking Probiotics Can Make Some Digestive Issues Worse
Sandie Gascon, certified functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner and health coach, debunks the common myth that probiotics are good for everyone. "Many people, especially those suffering from IBS, bloating, gas, indigestion, etc. may have something called SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth). It occurs when good bacteria from the large intestine migrate to the small intestine where they are not supposed to be.... These bacteria produce gas as they digest the food we eat. When people with SIBO take certain probiotics they actually get worse as they are feeding the SIBO. But because they have been told probiotics are good for them they continue to take them."
Gascon recommends getting an SIBO test if you are suffering from digestive issues or have an intolerance to fermented foods. Below, she recommends two probiotics that are safe to take for people with SIBO.