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.
Probiotics are found in everything from chocolate and pickles to hand lotion and baby formula, and millions of people buy probiotic supplements to boost digestive health. But new research suggests they might not be as effective as we think. Through a series of experiments looking inside the human gut, researchers show that many people's digestive tracts prevent standard probiotics from successfully colonizing them. Furthermore, taking probiotics to counterbalance antibiotics could delay the return of normal gut bacteria and gut gene expression to their naïve state. The research publishes as two back-to-back papers on September 6 in the journal Cell.
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.
Historically, people had plenty of probiotics in their diets from eating fresh foods from good soil and by fermenting foods to keep them from spoiling. Over a century ago, the Russian Nobel Prize winner Elie Metchnikoff theorized that “health could be enhanced and senility delayed by manipulating the intestinal microbiome with host-friendly bacteria found in yogurt.” Metchnikoff was ahead of his time with his view of probiotics benefits, but he also was aware that most citizens had regular access to probiotic foods.
Coming in at a close second, our runner-up as the best probiotic for women is the Culturelle Women’s Healthy Balance Probiotic. As the #1 recommended brand by pharmacists, it is easy to see why so many women are turning to Culturelle for their digestive health. Featuring the LGG culture and a laundry list of other healthy bacteria, this probiotic offers a wonderful balance between digestive and feminine health. The Culturelle Women’s Healthy Balance Probiotic is also taken in an easy, chewable tablet and can even be taken during pregnancy, making it one of the most versatile formulas we reviewed!
Some people prefer probiotic supplements over foods, but Dr. Cresci notes that probiotic foods are a better choice. In particular, fermented foods — like yogurt, kefir (a yogurt-like beverage), kombucha (fermented black tea), sauerkraut (refrigerated, not shelf-stable), kimchi (made from fermented cabbage) and tempeh and miso (made from fermented soybeans) — provide a nourishing environment in which healthful bacteria thrive and release an important byproduct: short-chain fatty acids.
Unlike MegaFood, the Renew Life label’s cold-storage recommendation is printed so small we nearly missed it (and it didn’t ship with a cold pack). If a probiotic requires refrigeration, be vigilant when buying it — the retailer that stores it or the company that ships it should keep it refrigerated until it gets to you. Otherwise, some of its potency might diminish in storage or transit.
While one 2009 study did show some evidence for reducing cold and flu symptoms in children ages three to five and a 2015 analysis showed probiotics to be better than placebo in preventing acute upper respiratory infections, neither were enough to convince the National Institutes of Health of the efficacy of probiotics for colds and flu. The NIH confirms, “the evidence is weak and the results have limitations.”
While past studies have investigated similar questions, they have all used patients' excrement as a proxy for microbe activity in the GI tract. Instead, Elinav, his colleague Eran Segal, (a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute), and their teams spearheaded by Niv Zmora, Jotham Suez, Gili Zilberman Schapira, and Uria Mor of the Elinav lab collaborated with Zamir Halpern, Chief of Gastroenterology at the Tel Aviv Medical Center to measure gut colonization directly.
This dairy-free, gluten-free, vegetarian probiotic delivers live microorganisms, protected in stomach acid-resistant capsules to ensure effective delivery throughout your digestive system, from the stomach through your small intestines. The result is the repair and sustained maintenance of your intestinal micro-ecology, which in turn helps support healthy immune response and bowel regularity.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) calls probiotics “live microorganisms (in most cases, bacteria) that are similar to beneficial microorganisms found in the human gut.” The NCCIH makes the point that we often think of bacteria as harmful “germs” — however, probiotic bacteria actually helps the body function properly.
What about prebiotics vs probiotics? Prebiotics are the food fibers that go through the gut unchanged and are then used by good colon bacteria as a food source for their own growth. Everyone already has most of these good bacteria present, but often in small quantities. Prebiotics are used to stimulate their growth. Simply stated, you already grow your own probiotics within your colon. You do not rely on them to make the passage through the stomach acid — acid that can destroy many probiotic bacteria. That’s why taking a probiotic supplement or adding probiotic foods to your diet does not always help your digestive system. You can eat as many probiotic bacteria as you want, but if they don’t survive the trip to the colon, your effort will be fruitless.
The good news keeps stacking up for probiotics, the good-for-you bacteria that keep your GI system functioning in tip-top shape. "Research is finding that a healthy microbiome may play a role in reducing inflammation, a risk factor involved in illnesses ranging from colds to cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and cognitive decline," says Katherine Tallmadge, RD, author of Diet Simple. In addition, the bacteria may help burn body fat and reduce insulin resistance, she says. So to stay slim and healthy, consider adding more probiotic foods to your diet. Start with these truly yummy 13.
Scientists are investigating probiotics, and their combined effects, by trying to classify the probiotic benefits of ingesting specific probiotic strains and understanding their role in the digestive tract. At present, the methodological and ethical limitations of human studies still make it difficult to fully understand the mechanisms of action of probiotics, but some explanations are available. Nevertheless, benefits linked to the consumption of probiotic strains have already been suggested (e.g. helping to support the immune system, help support digestive health), and others are still being investigated.
Lactobacillus predominantly live in your small bowel (the portion of your gut that follows the stomach). Probiotics containing Lactobacillus sp. help to repopulate the small intestine with friendly organisms that aid in supporting digestion and immune function. The most beneficial are L. acidophilus, L. plantarum, and L. paracasei. One study found Lactobacillus acidophilus could reduce gut inflammation. L. rhamnosus helps increase GABA expression (an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps you feel relaxed) in the brain, resulting in lower anxiety and depression-related behavior. Another found that a combination of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria (which we'll talk about next) improved symptoms of bloating in patients with functional bowel disorders, and yet another found that when people took the Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG strain, it significantly reduced the risk for antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
Popular probiotic foods include yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha. While delicious, these foods don’t claim specific amounts of whatever microorganisms they may contain. By contrast, Probiotic All-Flora is optimally formulated with the right amounts of the right strains to deliver researched benefits. The label lists out the DNA-tested flora that make up that ideal 10 billion CFU in just one capsule daily. So probiotic supplements actually have more reliable strain benefits than probiotic foods.
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.
The label should also specify that the living microbes are viable through end of shelf life or best by date rather than at time of manufacture to ensure the bacteria are still live when you take them and able to reach your colon. Quality trumps everything- supplements that are a bargain are typically not of quality. A good probiotic (depending on strands) can cost anywhere from $25-$60.
We have to give a nod to the most famous probiotic food: yogurt. Whether you love Greek or regular, low-fat or full-fat, look for the phrase "live active cultures" on the label. And although choosing a plain yogurt has less added sugar than the flavored kinds, Tallmadge gives you the okay to choose a fruit-infused flavor if that's the only way you'll eat it. Just be sure to aim for fewer than 15 grams of the sweet stuff per serving; sugar can feed the bad bugs in your gut.
The popular frenzy surrounding probiotics is fueled in large part by surging scientific and public interest in the human microbiome: the overlapping ecosystems of bacteria and other microorganisms found throughout the body. The human gastrointestinal system contains about 39 trillion bacteria, according to the latest estimate, most of which reside in the large intestine. In the past 15 years researchers have established that many of these commensal microbes are essential for health. Collectively, they crowd out harmful microbial invaders, break down fibrous foods into more digestible components and produce vitamins such as K and B12.
As you age, your body needs different supplements and vitamins to stay healthy. Renew Life 50+ Ultimate Flora Probiotic is a smart choice for adults over 50 because it is specifically formulated with seniors in mind. It has 30 billion live cultures and 12 strains of probiotics, including Bifidobacteria, which is a probiotic that decreases in your body as you age. Seniors develop less of the “good” bacteria as they age, and Ultimate Flora has three times the average live cultures in each dose to help replenish and protect gut and immune health. This 60-day supply should be refrigerated to maintain the live cultures.
However, a 2003 pilot study and 2011 randomized, controlled trial both reported that RA activities remained unchanged, but the subjects treated with probiotics reported statistically significantly higher levels of “subjective well-being.” One suggested reason for this was that the trials were too short to establish changes in the observable changes in the internal earmarks of RA.
If you have an immune system problem or another serious health condition, you may have a greater chance of issues. Some reports have linked probiotics to serious infections and other side effects. The people most likely to have trouble are those with immune system problems, people who've had surgery, and others who are critically ill. Don't take probiotics if you have any of those issues.
This Korean staple relies on lactic acid fermentation (also called lacto-fermentation) to turn cabbage or other vegetables into a spicy, pungent side dish that's packed with vitamin C. Order it at Korean restaurants or buy it in the refrigerated section of your grocery store (King's Kimchi is widely available at Walmart). For some guidance on making your own, turn to The Art of Fermentation ($23; amazon.com). Then, use it to spike veggie-laden rice bowls, top on soup, or serve alongside meat.