Probiotics seem to be all the rage these days. With many purported benefits and a relatively low risk of side effects, manufacturers are taking advantage of booming business opportunities. Rather than leave your health in the hands of big business, it is important that you be as educated as possible about the best types of probiotics so you can choose what is right for you and your family.

In addition to the impact on our immune systems, our digestive systems are the second largest part of the neurological system. It’s called the enteric nervous system and is located in the gut. This is why it’s called the second brain — the gut is responsible for creating 95 percent of the serotonin and may have significant impact on brain function and mood.
Our gut is home to over 500 bacterial species. These “visitors” form a bioreactor, which facilitates digestion, provides nutrients, and helps form the immune system. Some important nutrients made by this bioreactor include several B vitamins, vitamin K, folate, and some short-chain fatty acids. Up to 10% of an individual’s daily energy needs can be derived from the byproducts of the good bacteria in your gut.
Others scientists are more hopeful. Finding out how exactly probiotics work in regards to allergies is an important step in that process. Some studies show that some strains of bacteria can affect how our T cells (an immune cell responsible for the big immune responses) function. Others suggest that they may reduce the production of a part of the immune system called immunoglobulin E, which is produced in excess during an allergic reaction.
Back to the question of what are probiotics: There are five main types, each in its own classification called a genus. Within each genus there are multiple species, and within those species there are multiple strains. For example, Lactobacillus is a very common genus of probiotics. Within that genus are numerous species, such as rhamnosus. The genus and species of a microbe are always italicized, making it easy to know that a microbe is involved. In a species such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus (often abbreviated L. rhamnosus), there are many strains. An example of the name of a strain is L. rhamnosus GR-1.
These are live microorganisms that will not provide the promised benefits if they don't remain alive. The manufacturer and consumer must pay close attention to the conditions of storage at which the particular microorganism will survive and the end of their shelf life. The potency will indicate the number of viable bacteria per dose, and the purity has to do with presence of contaminating or ineffective bacteria.
The science on what probiotics do is still emerging. There is some hard evidence that suggests eating probiotic foods and supplements can have a beneficial effect on health. Other evidence suggests probiotics benefits are limited to those individuals in good health and should be avoided by those who suffer from certain serious health conditions. There is no research that demonstrates the risks or the benefits of probiotic supplements on children.
Some foods are made by adding bacteria — yogurt, pickles, cottage cheese, kombucha, and sauerkraut are good examples. Those foods work to provide the same probiotic benefits as supplements. However, most foods are so processed and pasteurized that it’s unlikely you’ll see the same benefits, let alone the right strains, as you would with a supplement. Regardless, it can’t hurt to get extra probiotics through your diet.
To avoid those and other problems, I strongly recommend buying a professional brand from a reputable health care professional or other vendor who stands by their products and undergoes third-party testing. Some of these professional brands have created advanced technology that preserves a probiotic supplement’s survival on the shelf and in your gut.
Dr. Michelle Schoffro Cook says there’s no single best strain of bacteria, though some strains, like L. Acidophilus or B. Bacterium, have wide-reaching effects. They often act as a starting point from which to add other strains with more specific impacts. Already have probiotics on hand or want to arm yourself with raw knowledge before you shop? The table below shows the research- and expert-backed strains we looked for in each use case:
They probably are. Lebwohl says probiotics may decrease the risk of getting diarrhea during the course of taking antibiotics, and may also play a role in specifically preventing the development of the dreaded antibiotic-related super diarrhea called C. difficile or C. diff. Antibiotics can wipe out the good bacteria that keep you from getting sick if you’re exposed to C. diff, or if you already have it in your system. C. diff symptoms can range from a moderate watery diarrhea several times a day to severe infections, which can be accompanied by fever, bloody stools, rapid heart rate, and can even lead to kidney failure. 500,000 Americans were infected with C. diff in 2015 and 15,000 died from it.
There are two main types of probiotics; the first is the live cultures I describe above, like the strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. You might have heard some naysaying about this kind of probiotic—the typical argument against them is that the classic form of live cultures is destroyed by the acidic environment in the stomach. To get around this, quality probiotics are made with an acid-resistant capsule so that they don’t get immediately broken down. (Which means you don’t have to take the probiotics with food, although I normally do. I’ll sometimes break the capsule and mix it into a smoothie, or use the powder form. You might lose a bit of potency but it’s not significant.)
She totally did, but you may have noticed that you don't see those yogurt commercials anymore. That’s because in 2010, the Federal Trade Commission in conjunction with 39 states' attorney generals banned those ads, finding that the Dannon Company had no scientific evidence to back up their claims,. Dannon had to pay $21 million to resolve the associated investigations.
Make sure dosages are listed in CFU, colony forming units. (Most brands list CFU in billions now: so 30 billion CFU, 100 billion CFU, and so on.) For one, this means that the bacteria strains are living, which is essential. When you’re looking at the cost of products, be sure to look at the cost per unit. I spoke to a woman the other day who had bought probiotics that had 2 billion CFU per capsule. In comparison, to get the 30 billion CFU I recommend, she’d have to take essentially half of her bottle to get the same dosage as one of our capsules.
Do you strain with infrequent bowel movements? Do the feces look like separate hard lumps or like bunches of hard lumps stuck together, or are they pencil-thin? You may have constipation. The Bristol stool chart (BSC) was developed by two doctors as a way to differentiate between states of constipation, normal elimination, a state of lacking fiber, and states of inflammation. Stools are supposed to be long and sausage-like, with few or no cracks in the surface.

The idea that consuming probiotics can boost the ability of already well-functioning native bacteria to promote general health is dubious for a couple of reasons. Manufacturers of probiotics often select specific bacterial strains for their products because they know how to grow them in large numbers, not because they are adapted to the human gut or known to improve health. The particular strains of Bifidobacterium or Lactobacillus that are typically found in many yogurts and pills may not be the same kind that can survive the highly acidic environment of the human stomach and from there colonize the gut.

Better Health Review ranks Ultimate Flora as the most effective probiotic supplement. It contains 30 billion active bifidobacteria for colon health, and 20 billion lactobacilli and lactococcus cultures for the small intestine. According to Better Health Review, it contains all natural ingredients. It earns a perfect 5 score from Better Health Review, and the magazine “Vitamin Retailer” voted it best two years in a row.