While raw probiotics tend to be the freshest (and most effective!) cultures on the market, it is important to ensure that you will store these properly in between each use. Cultures can die unrefrigerated in as little as a few hours, rendering them completely ineffective and, if you’re especially unlucky, even harmful to your body’s natural flora. Think about it, when has stale or moldy bread made your tummy feel better? The same thing goes for stale probiotic cultures!
Probiotics are live microorganisms (bacteria or yeast) that have been shown to have a health benefit for humans. They are available in supplement form or in probiotic foods and drinks. Probiotics are thought to be akin to (and to increase the level of) the "good" bacteria found in your intestines. These "good" bacteria are thought to enhance our health through their support of our immune systems.
Most probiotics are like what is already in a person's digestive system. Some probiotics have been used for a very long time throughout history, such as in fermented foods and cultured milk products. These don't appear to cause illness. But more study is needed on the safety of probiotics in young children, the elderly, and people who have weak immune systems.
What's more, there's still a lot more to learn about the microbiome and probiotics, in general. "Truth be told, the research area of probiotics and health is still pretty much in its infancy," says registered dietitian Kate Scarlata. Research is growing in the area of gut microbiome daily—but it is much more complicated than first thought." With all these options and major gaps in the available information, where are you supposed to start? Here, gut experts narrow it down to three simple tips for picking the right probiotic for you.
Method of delivery: "The probiotic needs to be able to survive the acidic environment of the stomach and reach the intestine," explains Dr. Nazareth. This can be optimized through the way you take the probiotic and what's included in the formula. "Some delivery systems to consider are time-released tablet/caplet, capsules with an enteric coating and/or microcapsules, and ones that contain prebiotics and the optimal combination of probiotics," says Lori Chang, a registered dietitian with Kaiser Permanente in West Los Angeles.
While this feature contributes to the efficiency of the product, it is unclear whether this product is vegetarian like some of the other probiotics we reviewed. Therefore, if you have any dietary restrictions or needs, this may not be the best probiotic for you and may, in fact, cause additional stomach upset or irritation. It is however gluten-free.
Taking a probiotic every day is a good way to help prevent getting sick and having to go on antibiotics in the first place. Preventative measures, of course, are preferred. Another that is believed to help is upping your vitamin D intake when your immune system needs a boost. Diet is also huge in terms of preventing sickness. Studies show that you can change your microbiome within hours of adjusting your diet. If you’re not into sauerkraut, even just cutting back on sugar and eating more whole foods can make a difference.
Best Probiotic says that Suprema Dophilus, manufactured and distributed by Vitabase, enjoys the highest customer rating in the market. Specially coated to help the bacteria spread through your entire digestive tract, its website claims over four billion viable cells per capsule, including five lactobacillus strains and three bifidobacteria cultures. Best Probiotic says that Suprema Dophilus also contains fructo-oligosaccarides to increase the life span of the bacteria.
Fermenting a cucumber into a pickle amps up a cuke's powers, infusing the crunchy veggie with probiotics. Like sauerkraut, not all pickles offer the good bacteria, though. Look for those made with brine (salt and water) rather than vinegar. These brands will list "live cultures" on the label (like Bubbies). You can also use water, salt, and spices to naturally culture pickles and other veggies—like beets, green beans, and carrots—at home with delicious results. One warning: remember that pickles are salty—one dill can easily offer up more than 10% of your sodium needs in a day.
"Probiotics applied topically sit on the skin's surface and prevent the skin cells from seeing the bad bacteria and parasites that can cause this immune system response," confirms Engelman. "This is known as 'bacterial interference,' as probiotics protect the skin and interfere with the ability of bad bugs like bacteria and parasites to provoke an immune reaction.
Those who took probiotics did replenish gut microbiome more successfully than the “watch-and-wait” group. That said, there was also an unexpected backlash to probiotic use. The researchers were alarmingly surprised to discover that successful microbiome colonization via probiotics actually prevented the host's pre-antibiotic microbiome and gut gene expression profile from returning to its natural state for months after the treatment. But there is good news: Using aFMT resulted in the third group's native gut microbiome and gene expression profiles returning to normal within days after they stopped taking antibiotics.
Yes, they may help. Lebwohl says there are reputable studies that show a link between the use of probiotics and the reduction in IBS symptoms, citing this meta-analysis. It's estimated that 11 percent of the world population complains of symptoms like abdominal cramps, diarrhea, constipation, excessive gas and/or mucus in their stools. While for some the condition can be attributed to certain dietary triggers, others appear to be stress-related, which brings us to the heart of where many claims about the effectiveness of probiotics lie—in the gut-brain axis.
Even if some of the bacteria in a probiotic managed to survive and propagate in the intestine, there would likely be far too few of them to dramatically alter the overall composition of one's internal ecosystem. Whereas the human gut contains tens of trillions of bacteria, there are only between 100 million and a few hundred billion bacteria in a typical serving of yogurt or a microbe-filled pill. Last year a team of scientists at the University of Copenhagen published a review of seven randomized, placebo-controlled trials (the most scientifically rigorous types of studies researchers know how to conduct) investigating whether probiotic supplements—including biscuits, milk-based drinks and capsules—change the diversity of bacteria in fecal samples. Only one study—of 34 healthy volunteers—found a statistically significant change, and there was no indication that it provided a clinical benefit. “A probiotic is still just a drop in a bucket,” says Shira Doron, an infectious disease expert at Tufts Medical Center. “The gut always has orders of magnitude more microbes.”
Keep in mind that when supplements contain a specific number of organisms, this number may not be what is actually within each capsule at the time of purchase. Probiotics are living organisms and can die out easily. Especially if that supplement sits on your drugstore or warehouse shelf for months or longer, the number of organisms you get may be far less than what the bottle claims. Hardier strains have a longer shelf life. Capsule strength decays faster if the probiotic has been sitting around at elevated temperatures during transport to the store. Companies actually have to produce probiotics with a much higher CFU (colony-forming units; see below) count in each capsule in order to guarantee the label potency by the expiration date.
As of now, the most comprehensive meta-study (a study of different studies) has not been able to decisively identify any particular strain of bacteria that is specifically useful to treat seasonal allergies. Some studies contradict each other on which bacteria can treat grass pollen, and other studies will find that those strains the first two studies examined weren’t nearly as effective in their own trials.
Unfortunately, many commercial brands don’t measure up. They are unstable in stomach acid. Quality control measures aren’t intact, including ensuring supplements have been handled correctly and maintain their freshness. Moisture slipping into probiotic supplements can reduce their efficacy. Companies that use bioshield capsules produce higher quality probiotic supplements that are able to endure the stomach acid, releasing their contents within the small intestine, where a more alkaline environment ensures the survival of the bacteria.
Lactobacilli dominate a healthy vaginal microbiota. Menstrual cycles, sexual activity, diet, certain medications, hygiene, and other factors can occasionally disrupt the vaginal microbiome. AZO Feminine Balance Daily Probiotic has been clinically demonstrated to contribute to the colonization of these important lactobacilli in the vagina.* The result: restoring the natural balance of good bacteria and yeast to maintain vaginal health.*
To factor strain-specific benefits into our efficacy score, we referenced the information in these guides. Products were rewarded for containing strains on these lists. Additionally, measured levels of each strain were compared to what is thought to be effective based on these guides, and scores were scaled accordingly. In cases where products did not list strain-specific amounts, or their listed strains were not included in these guides, total measured CFUs were compared to a general effectiveness threshold of 1 billion CFUs cited by research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition11.