What are the benefits of taking probiotics? Bacteria have a reputation for causing disease, so the idea of tossing down a few billion a day for your health might seem — literally and figuratively — hard to swallow. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that you can treat and even prevent some illnesses with foods and supplements containing certain kinds of live bacteria. Northern Europeans consume a lot of these beneficial microorganisms, called probiotics (from pro and biota, meaning "for life"), because of their tradition of eating foods fermented with bacteria, such as yogurt. Probiotic-laced beverages are also big business in Japan.

CFU: This is the number of "colony forming units" present in each dose, which are measured in the billions. And while more isn't always better, "you want at least 20 to 50 billion CFU," says Dr. Nazareth. Just for reference, a very high dose is 400 CFU, which most experts agree is not necessary unless your health care practitioner specifically recommends this for you. It's also important to check for the guaranteed CFU upon expiration, which should be listed clearly. "Some products only guarantee the CFU number at the time of manufacturing, therefore will be less potent by the time the product reaches your home," she says.


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.
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.
"This suggests that probiotics should not be universally given as a 'one-size-fits-all' supplement," study co-senior author Eran Elinav, an immunologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, said in a statement. However, it may be possible to tailor probiotic treatments to the individual, based on the types of microbes already in his or her gut, as well as other factors, so that he or she gets the most benefit from probiotics, the researchers said.

Another study by Elinav and his colleagues suggests that not everyone’s gut reacts the same way to probiotic pills. They studied samples of microbiomes from antibiotic users before and after they took supplements for four weeks. The good bacteria were found in the digestive tracts of some people. But in others, the bacteria were present only in stool samples, not in their digestive tracts, where they’re thought to be needed to improve health.
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.
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Since the bulk of your natural flora exists in your gut, it makes sense that this is the part of your body that feels it most when bacteria become imbalanced. Women, in particular, can experience all kinds of digestive problems, particularly during hormone fluctuations. These are just some of the digestive symptoms a high-quality probiotic can help reduce and even treat:
What are the gut microbiota and human microbiome? Microbes are commonly associated with disease, but there are millions inside the human body, and some provide distinct benefits. The microbiota and microbiome of the human body have been researched intensively in recent years. Find out about what we now know about them and what they mean for health. Read now

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.
Bacteria in your digestive tract can be good or bad, according to the website Best Probiotic. It quotes the Royal Academy of Medicine England as blaming an imbalance between good and bad bacteria for causing 80 percent of all degenerative diseases. Probiotic supplements with "good" bacteria have become increasingly popular. They can aid the immune system, digestion and vitamin absorption, as well as prevent diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome. The website Women to Women recommends probiotics that combine saccharomyces, lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacteria in the billions. MayoClinic.com also recommends lactobacillus and advises looking for products that contain live, active cultures. You should always check with your doctor before adding any supplements to your diet.
If you get sick often, probiotics might be the immune booster you've been looking for. The Cleveland Clinic says they've been shown to strengthen immunity by enriching and replenishing the good bacteria in the body. And when you eat foods with probiotics regularly, it's easier for your body to produce vitamins and enzymes that help keep your intestines happy.
Yes. Probiotics are incredibly important and effective. We know there are more bacteria in us and on us than our own human cells. The body is almost like a puppet—it is bacteria that really runs the show: They turn on enzymes, turn off genes, and dictate much of our health. We need them to break down nutrients, like copper and magnesium, so we can better absorb them. Interestingly, studies show that conditions like anxiety, depression, and weight gain can be transferred via fecal transplants (with mice), suggesting the broad impact bacteria has on health.
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.
In October 2013, the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) organized a meeting of clinical and scientific experts on probiotics (with specialties in gastroenterology, pediatrics, family medicine, gut microbiota, microbiology of probiotic bacteria, microbial genetics, immunology, and food science) to reexamine the concept of probiotics. They define probiotics as "live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host." They also differentiated between products containing probiotics and those containing live or active cultures and established the following criteria:
Given that you can get probiotics from the food you eat, you don't necessarily need to take a supplement, and Keatley says she prefers food sources of probiotics to supplements. However, she adds that "There are times when you really need a boost." One example might be during or after a course of antibiotics, as long as you have your doctor's OK, since antibiotics kill both good and bad bacteria: "Seeding your gut with good bacteria can lay the groundwork for a faster recovery and less constipation and diarrhea," Keatley points out. Angelone echoes Keatley's emphasis on food sources of probiotics, but also says that supplements can also play a useful role in "maintaining a healthy gut bacteria colony."
The benefit of taking a probiotic supplement is that a supplement contains very specific bacteria known to have a beneficial effect on human health, and a positive impact on our gut microbiome. Taking a probiotic supplement has the added benefit of providing a specific and concentrated dosage of healthy bacteria, so you know you are getting a therapeutic, research-proven dosage every time.
Quick note about some formulations with multiple strains (including this one): Take a look at the label below and you’ll see that the supplement contains a mix of strains, but the label just says there is a total of 20 billion CFUs (how they measure the amount of bacteria). This does not tell us how much of each particular strain there is, and we want to know that there are at least 1 billion CFUs per strain to get a beneficial effect.
Bacteria die out over time. Some supplements list the potency when they were manufactured (before they rode in a truck, sat on the shelf at the grocery store, or hung out in the kitchen cupboard for a few months). In this case, there could be dramatically fewer viable bacteria by the time you consume them than when they were first encapsulated, and good bacteria are no good to you dead.

If you get sick often, probiotics might be the immune booster you've been looking for. The Cleveland Clinic says they've been shown to strengthen immunity by enriching and replenishing the good bacteria in the body. And when you eat foods with probiotics regularly, it's easier for your body to produce vitamins and enzymes that help keep your intestines happy.
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.
Sugar is so easily accessible in Westernized cultures that it is easy to overindulge in it. But why do you crave it? There are several reasons. One, sugar usually means sucrose, which is composed of glucose and fructose. Glucose is the sugar in your blood, so consumption of sugar results in a temporary boost of energy. However, that blood-sugar spike causes insulin to be released to usher the sugar into cells for energy or fat storage, and shortly afterward your blood sugar drops. So then you feel a slump and reach for something to bring your blood sugar back up: more sugar.
Supplements play an important role when the diet is not adequate to supply our needs. In the case of probiotics, one's diet is the ideal source for probiotics. These are live bacteria and need to be carefully monitored, stored, and combined for the health benefits that one would be taking them for. At this time, supplements are not monitored in the U.S. the way that food or medication is. They fall under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). This requires that the dietary supplement or dietary ingredient manufacturer be responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement or ingredient is safe before it is marketed. The only time that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may get involved is if action is needed to be taken against a manufacturer after the supplement is marketed and then found to be unsafe. This means that as much as we may know about probiotics, we can't be certain of the safety or content of the supplements available to us.
The second type of probiotics are soil-based organisms (SBO), which tend to be more resistant to acid in the gut. Here’s the thinking behind soil-based probiotics: Many people (particularly in the paleo community) believe that widespread gut and health issues today are the result of life in a too-clean society. In the past, when more people worked in the dirt, played in the dirt, there was less obsessing over cleanliness and antibacterial products, we got more natural exposure to probiotics. The benefit of soil-based probiotics is that they come from the earth, and the bacteria (which are still living) have their own natural, protective capsule surrounding them. I recommend soil-based probiotics to patients with autoimmunity, in addition to the classic form. They are particularly helpful for people with SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth)—with SIBO, you also have an overgrowth of good bacteria; and in this case, the classic form of probiotic is not what you need to fight the infection.
High cholesterol and triglyceride levels increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Getting your cholesterol and triglyceride levels in an optimal range will help protect your heart and blood vessels. Cholesterol management may include lifestyle interventions (diet and exercise) as well as medications to get your total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides in an optimal range.
According to the NIH, probiotic supplements contain many microorganisms that are the same as or similar to the ones that naturally live in your body, but there's still a lot of research to be done on probiotics and how they work. It's important to keep in mind that not all probiotics have the same effects and that taking probiotics isn't a guarantee of better health. And while they're generally safe for healthy people to take, with side effects being limited to mild digestive discomfort, they could interact with certain medications or pose health risks to people with underlying medical problems — that's why it's smart to talk to your doctor before getting started with a supplement.
That’s why adding probiotics and prebiotics to your diet provide the best possible outcome from a bacterial perspective. It isn’t always easy to eat naturally prebiotic-enriched foods, however, because they are often distasteful to eat in quantity. Would you enjoy eating several cups of raw onion or garlic every day? Probably not. Other foods that contain prebiotic fiber, such as bread and bananas, are high in calories. Consuming hundreds of calories of these foods every day is counterproductive if you’re trying to lose weight.

When I polled friends and family about their personal experiences with probiotics, I got a real mixed bag of responses. Some called them a lifesaver and others felt no effects whatsoever. I put the anecdotes aside and talked to Ben Lebwohl, gastroenterologist and director of clinical research at Columbia University’s Celiac Disease Center, to get the straight poop on whether probiotics are miracle or myth.


The gut microbiota has been implicated in diseases ranging from obesity to Parkinson's disease and depression. Little wonder then that commercial probiotics have gained widespread popularity and are now estimated to command a US$37 billion market worldwide. But with research into the microbiome still in its infancy, increasing evidence suggests that both commercial and clinical use of probiotics is outpacing the science.
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.” 

Dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD, also points out the key role probiotics play in gut health and your body's immune system. "Probiotics are live microorganisms that may be able to help prevent and treat some illnesses," explains Engelman. "Probiotics can create 'holes' in bad bacteria and kill them. Similar to the way antibiotics work in the treatment of acne and rosacea, probiotics can help fight harmful bugs from triggering inflammation. In patients with acne and rosacea, living microorganisms on the skin are recognized as foreign by the body's immune system. The immune system springs into action to counter this potential threat resulting in the inflammation, redness, or bumps common in these skin conditions."
While taking a daily probiotic supplement may seem like an easy answer to cure common gut ailments, it’s always best to try for a food first approach, since you can get probiotics from the foods you eat. Probiotics can be found in foods such as yogurt, cheese, miso, sauerkraut, and kimchi. But, adding a supplement into the mix if you haven’t achieved the desired effect through diet alone can be effective.
Taking relatively high doses of these probiotic strains before, during, and after antibiotic treatment can help your microbiome get back on its feet: B. Lactis, B. Infantis, L. Acidophilus, L. Casei, L. Bulgaricus, L. Paracasei, L. Rhamnosus GG, and S. Boulardii. Our antibiotic combatant MegaFood MegaFlora has six of these strains, as well as eight others. One serving contains 20 billion CFUs to replenish the good bacteria.
Quick note about some formulations with multiple strains (including this one): Take a look at the label below and you’ll see that the supplement contains a mix of strains, but the label just says there is a total of 20 billion CFUs (how they measure the amount of bacteria). This does not tell us how much of each particular strain there is, and we want to know that there are at least 1 billion CFUs per strain to get a beneficial effect.

Oral health. An increasing number of probiotic lozenges and gums are promoted for oral health—to reduce periodontal disease, throat infections, and bad breath, for example. There’s preliminary evidence that certain strains may have some benefits, but commercial products may not have the same strains and formulations as those tested in published studies.
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.”
What’s more, your bacterial makeup does more than just boost or bully your immune system; the existence of good and bad bacteria affect your mood and energy levels, relieve (or contribute to) a sensitive stomach (including lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome/IBS), affect your mood, and even support (or hinder) a healthy body weight. (Fascinating fact: Scientists can predict weight with 90% accuracy based on your gut’s bacterial makeup, but only with 58% accuracy based on your genes. Bacteria counts!)
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.
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.
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.
The Golive Berry Probiotic and Prebiotic Supplement Blend is perfect for tossing in your bag or keeping in your desk. Each packet includes 15 billion CFUs and 15 different probiotic strains. It also has a soluble fiber prebiotic to promote the growth of good bacteria in your body. Each packet contains 30 calories and comes in five flavors including pomegranate, melon cucumber, citrus blueberry, and a flavorless option. It can be mixed in any hot or cold drink, but we recommend tossing the flavored packet into a bottle of water. You’ll get 10 packets in each order.
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