Other foods without substantial research: miso (fermented soybean paste); tempeh; sauerkraut; aged soft cheese; sourdough bread; sour pickles; gundruk (nonsalted, fermented, and acidic vegetable product); sinki (indigenous fermented radish tap root food); khalpi (fermented cucumber); inziangsang (traditional fermented leafy vegetable product prepared from mustard leaves); soidonis (widespread fermented product prepared from the tip of mature bamboo shoots)
This content is strictly the opinion of Dr. Josh Axe and is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of medical advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Axe nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.
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.
There’s hard science saying probiotics can help with certain kinds of diarrhea, but for other conditions, it’s a bit of a crapshoot (har har). Lebwohl says that one of the first things that needs to change for probiotics to go widespread legit in the medical community is their regulation. Since they’re currently marketed as dietary supplements, they’re not subjected to the same FDA standards that medications are. That means that not only have they not been proven to work, it also means there’s also no assurance that what’s on the labels of these products actually matches what’s inside the bottle.
There’s preliminary evidence that some probiotics are helpful in preventing diarrhea caused by infections and antibiotics and in improving symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, but more needs to be learned. We still don’t know which probiotics are helpful and which are not. We also don’t know how much of the probiotic people would have to take or who would most likely benefit from taking probiotics. Even for the conditions that have been studied the most, researchers are still working toward finding the answers to these questions.
Probiotics are officially defined by the Joint Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations/World Health Organization Working Group as “Live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” Basically, probiotics at this point in time are live bacteria and yeasts that provide health benefits to you if you take them in adequate quantities.
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.”
MegaFood is our only top pick that’s certified vegan, as well as being gluten free and dairy free, making it a good choice for any food-sensitive or vegan probiotic seeker. It has fewer of our wishlist “general health” strains than Vita Miracle, but it still contains five. This could be a go-to if you eat vegan, even if you’re not recovering post-antibiotic.
When seeking out the best probiotic for you, consider your overall health, dietary needs, antibiotic use, GI challenges, and similar concerns. Then, review our list of the ten best probiotic supplements, which offer everything from raw probiotics, which must be refrigerated, to shelf-stable, slow-release probiotics that concentrate fewer CFUs in tiny, once-daily capsules.
We also found strains linked to five other health benefits like weight loss and lowering cholesterol. We feature options for those cases below, but they aren’t top picks because those use cases aren’t as heavily researched as immune health or IBS relief. Still, chances are any probiotic supplement is going to make some improvement to your digestive health, so don’t be afraid to experiment.
Bottom line: Probiotics are a promising field of research and may one day be used to treat or help prevent many disorders. But there’s not enough solid evidence to recommend their widespread use. Vague claims that probiotics "support good digestive health" are meaningless. Larger, longer and better studies are needed to test specific strains for specific conditions and to determine the proper doses and regimens.
Cynthia is the assistant editor and frequent contributor. She’s originally from California, but has lived in many countries including South Korea, China and Germany. She currently lives with her husband in Minnesota. Cynthia is passionate about helping families find the best advice for family life and safety. Cynthia also has experience in early childhood education and holds a TEFL-C certificate from Teachers College, Columbia University. She has been writing about family-focused topics, advice and trends since 2014.
Prebiotics and supplementary ingredients — For probiotic bacteria to grow, they also need prebiotics. High-quality probiotic supplements have both prebiotics and other ingredients designed to support digestion and immunity. Examples of these ingredients are (preferably fermented) flaxseed, chia seed, cañihua seed, astragalus, ashwagandha, hemp seed, pumpkin seed, milk thistle, peas, ginger, mung bean and turmeric.
The probiotic industry is booming, but the benefits of probiotic products and the quantity of viable bacteria they contain can vary. So, instead of adding bacteria from an outside source, you might be better off consuming prebiotics, like fermentable fiber, which support your own beneficial bacteria, Dr. Cresci says. Good dietary sources of prebiotics include dried beans and other legumes, garlic, asparagus, onions, leeks, certain artichokes, green bananas and wheat. Prebiotic supplements are available, as well.
Third-party testing: Lastly, it's important to remember that probiotics are an unregulated supplement. "Find out whether there is third-party data verifying the potency, purity, and effectiveness of the product," suggests Dena Norton, a registered dietitian and holistic nutrition coach. "Remember that dietary supplements aren't regulated, so you can't necessarily just trust the claims on the label." Check out AEProbio, a site that has compiled research on specific brands of probiotics available in the U.S., recommends Scarlata, and an NSF seal is always a good marker to look for.
As with other types of supplements, scientists are still discovering the full potential of probiotics. However, when taken regularly, it is believed that they help support digestive health by helping maintain the balance of beneficial and non-beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract. Having a natural balance of good bacteria in the digestive tract can help defend against occasional digestive issues. In addition, probiotics play an important role in supporting immune health, since 70% of the body's immune system is found in the digestive tract.∗