You probably heard all the health-promoting functions your microbiome does for you. You know that taking a probiotic supplement regularly can help to heal and maintain GI health.
So you make a trip to the supplement store and find you are overwhelmed by all the choices.
How many billion CFU's are best? What's a CFU? This one has two strains of probiotics and that one has seven. Can I get away with the cheaper one? Which is best for me?
The first thing you need to know is some background information. There are two main probiotic types: Lactobacillus strains and soil-based strains. Both are vital parts of our microbiome.
Let's begin with the soil-based type. Our food used to be teeming with friendly soil-based bacteria. With the advent of factory farming, pesticides, and chemical fertilizer that feeds the plant rather than building up the soil probiotics, this leaves our food relatively sterile. On top of this, kids are not allowed to play in the dirt as much as they used to, being put into bleached day cares or preschools at a young age.
Non-soil-based probiotics are human colonizers such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidus species. They have been living symbiotically in our intestines, mucus membranes, and skin since the dawn of time. These are passed on to us from our mothers, beginning with the birth process. Of course, arriving via C-section changes this a bit, but that's another tale to tell.
Keep them Cold
The most important thing you should look for in a quality product is for it to be refrigerated. This keeps them alive and ready to populate your gut. For this same reason, probiotics should be kept refrigerated at home as well.
The exception to this rule is if the probiotic is 100% soil-based. These bacteria are in a dormant state and have a spore case that protects them from both heat and stomach-acid. They start to grow again when they reach the moist environment of your intestines. Soil probiotics are a great choice if you travel a lot and have no access to a refrigerator, or if you just need to keep your supplements out on the table in order to remember to take them.
10 Strains are Better than 1
Once you found the refrigerated probiotics, you should look to see how many different strains of probiotics are in the bottle. The most common strains are ones such as Lactobacillis acidophilus and other Lactobacillis species, as well as Bifidobcterium bifidum and other Bifido's.
A robust human microbiome has a wide diversity of bacteria, so a probiotic should be as diverse as possible. Look for a product with at least 10 probiotic strains. Single strains are at times useful if you are treating a specific digestive problem.
What is a CFU?
A colony-forming unit (CFU) means how many live bacteria you get when you grow out what's in the pill. The fact is, not all the bacteria in the bottle are alive, and the CFU count is supposed to be the company's best assessment of how many of them will still be alive by the time you swallow a pill.
Several research studies have looked at the CFU of a probiotic and how much it helps heal a person's digestive illness and most of them conclude that more is not necessarily better. Although having the number measured in the billions is best, you probably don't need to go much higher than 30 billion CFUs for general digestive health.
What about pre-biotics?
These are basically food sources for the probiotic bacteria. They can help to not only keep happy what's in the bottle, but can theoretically feed the other established beneficial bacteria in your gut.
However, you might want to avoid them if you have found that eating extra plant fiber makes your gut symptoms worse. In this case they are feeding the huge population of bad bacteria in your gut and you need to find a probiotic specifically without pre-biotics until you can reduce the bad bacteria.
The biggest difficulty with choosing a quality probiotic is being able to know what brands you can trust. Since there is no real oversight or regulation in probiotic production, there is a lot of room for companies to make false claims on the label.
For example, some companies use bacterial strains found in cows, not humans. The probiotic may be contaminated with unfriendly bacteria, viruses, yeast, or fillers and this has been proven by an independent team of researchers for certain “cheaper” brands.
Even the CFU on the label could be inaccurate, with the whole bottle containing dead bacteria, either due to poor shipping and storage or blatant lying.
Go ahead and call the company. Ask them if they have proof of independent third party verification of what is written on the label so you know you are getting what you're paying for.
So which one is right for you?
For general, all-purpose intestinal support, go with the one that is refrigerated, has at least ten different strains, several billion CFU's per serving, and no weird fillers on the ingredients label. Getting the most expensive one is not usually necessary, nor is it a guarantee of the best quality. However, getting the cheapest one is probably not a good idea either.
Unfortunately for the consumer, most reputable brands can only be sold through doctors, so you won't even be able to find them in a store.
If this all still sounds confusing, seek out a licensed professional who knows about the microbiome and GI health, even for just one visit to establish an optimal digestive health protocol if you have no current problems. If you do have digestive problems, a probiotic tailored to your specific needs would serve you best.
Dr. Melissa DeForest: I am a Naturopathic Doctor who specializes in digestive disorders. My goal is to educate, inspire, and empower others to lead a life they love.
Disclaimer: All information presented here is for educational purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult with your doctor before starting any new exercise, supplement, or diet routine.