What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live organisms that convey health benefits to the host when consumed.
Where can you find probiotics?
Probiotics are available in supplement form and from fermented foods like yogurt. But not all fermented foods can be classed as probiotic simply because they contain live organisms, since the definition of a probiotic is such that it MUST convey a health benefit to the host.
What are probiotics used for?
People generally choose probiotics to improve digestion and other symptoms / disorders that have their roots in suboptimal gut function.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Inflammatory bowel disease + other autoimmune diseases
- Leaky gut
- And more
In fact, these days, probiotics are being used to treat systemic diseases, and even neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS. Many diseases are now being linked to inflammation that begins in the gut.
How do probiotics improve gut health?
Knowing how to choose the right probiotic for you is a real skill, since probiotics’ effects are wide-ranging.
Just some of the benefits associated with probiotics include-
- Regulating bowel movements
- Synthesizing vitamins such as vitamins B & K
- Producing antimicrobials to kill pathogens
- Absorbing nutrients & minerals
- Maintaining healthy stomach acid levels
- Producing digestive enzymes
- Detoxifying the body
- Improving gut barrier integrity
- Aiding with neurotransmitter production & mood
- Reducing inflammation
- Protecting against disease causing bacteria by crowding out
- Producing short chain fatty acids that have both gut & systemic impacts
- Thickening the mucus layer to protect against gut barrier dysfunction
- And more.
This list is by no means complete, and it should be noted that not all probiotics do all of these things.
In fact, different strains of a probiotic, even if belonging to the same species, may convey entirely different benefits to the host.
So how do we choose a probiotic supplement then?
There are a number of questions we should ask ourselves.
1. What is the GOAL of you taking a probiotic supplement?
As mentioned above, even different strains of the same species & genus can have very different effects on our bodies. So it’s important to understand your reasons for deciding to take a probiotic, and then choosing the most appropriate one.
A reputable manufacturer will generally disclose the strains present in their formula, as well as clearly laying out the associated benefits of consuming those strains (ideally evidence-based).
Sometimes one particular strain will be the main contributor in terms of conveying benefits to the host, and sometimes it’s more of a team effort where an enhanced, synergistic effect is had on the host by combing the strains.
There are, however, plenty of probiotics merchants out there who do not disclose the strains present in their formulas. This is usually because they either do not know, or there is no evidence to support their efficacy.
On top of this, many merchants are actually just white labeling other probiotics. In fact, this is so common that there are more white labelled probiotic supplements being sold than those produced and sold to the end customer by the manufacturer themselves. Often merchants who white label these supplements care very little about their efficacy, and are focused exclusively on profits.
Section Summary | When choosing probiotics, understand clearly your desired outcome first so that you can align you choice with the benefits associated with the exact probiotic you choose.
2. What is the reputation of the product and or manufacturer?
This one is relatively straightforward, but involves a little work on your part.
Here are a few of the things I look at when assessing reputation-
Website | Does the company have one? Lots of the white labelers mentioned above won’t, or it will be very obvious how little effort has gone into it.
Blog | When was the last post? This one may sound silly, but this will go a long way to help you understand just how much effort is going into a specific product / brand. Older than 6 months? Hmmmm.
LinkedIn page | Does the company have one? Again, often white labelers or those could-care-less will not have taken the time to set up a LinkedIn page. A LinkedIn page where the employees are there for all to see often lets you know that the company has nothing to hide.
Reviews | This one is obvious, but worth mention. Try to find reviews that cannot be manipulated by the manufacturer. Look for independent review platforms like www.consumerlab.com, Google, or independent review engines on the company’s website like TrustPilot. Clue – whilst Amazon has a pretty robust review system, it CAN be manipulated. Proceed with caution when looking at reviews on Amazon.
Section Summary | When choosing a probiotic, research both the product AND the company behind it using the techniques above.
3. How many CFU’s does the probiotic supplement have?
CFU (colony forming unit) count is often the only part of the label that consumers look at when purchasing probiotics. 100 billion is better than 50 billion, and 50 billion than 3 billion, right? Because it’s a bigger number..?
Not so fast.
I’ve seen far better results in my clients when we are strategic around which probiotics to include, versus simply opting for probiotics with a hefty CFU count. In fact, I often see better my results in my clients who do not consume ANY probiotics, versus those who opt for supplements with 100+ billion CFU formulas.
Why is this?
Because quality matters.
There is no sense in consuming a 100 billion CFU formula if those bacteria aren’t going to survive the harsh, acidic environment in the stomach, or if the strains present in the 100 billion CFU formula are not well researched and selected with your specific outcome in mind.
I’ve seen 2 billion CFU formulas outperform 100 billion CFU formulas, and I see it a lot.
Section Summary | When choosing a probiotic, opt for quality over quantity. Quantity starts to matter only after quality has been assessed. Often, large CFU counts are only required in niche scenarios.
4. Are the probiotic supplement strains well researched?
This echoes the point that I’ve alluded to in the two previous sections. It’s important that the strains present in the formula are well researched, and I urge you to look at the research yourself.
Here’s an example of a good looking supplement facts panel, because it contains the genus, the species, AND the strain:
It would be relatively easy for you to work out what the proposed outcome is of this probiotic supplement. And a supplier who gives you this much detail will probably spell it out pretty clearly for you too.
Section Summary | When choosing a probiotic, read the research associated with each of the probiotic strains. Does this sound tedious? This is your health we are talking about.
5. How many strains are present in the probiotic formula?
This is a very contentious topic.
Some argue that a large number of strains is a good thing, because microbial diversity is a good predicator of a healthy gut. Whilst it’s hard to disagree that microbial diversity in your gut biome matters, there is an argument to suggest that these strains would compete with each other both in the capsule and in the host, thus negating some of the desired effects of consuming the probiotic.
Others argue that this competition either does not happen or is insignificant enough, that the desired outcomes of the consuming the probiotic are achieved even in the presence of a large number of strains.
Personally, I am on the fence on this one.
I have experience with single strain, low CFU count probiotics doing wonderful things for my clients, and also with high CFU count multi-strain probiotics achieving positive outcomes.
Therefore on this point, I’d pay more attention to the reputation of the manufacturer & specific product in question.
Section Summary | When choosing a probiotic, it probably doesn’t matter how many strains are in the formula. Pay closer attention to manufacturer & product reputation described earlier.
6. Does the probiotic formula require refrigeration?
Yet another contentious topic.
Here’s the thing – the probiotics are going to have to survive in your body which is 98.6F. So can probiotics live in temperatures above those found in the fridge? Of course they can.
Being refrigerated has little to do with the temperature at which the probiotics can survive. Rather it’s about slowing down their metabolism so that their survivability in the absence of food is improved. Keeping them dry also slows down their metabolism and avoids activation in the capsule. Generally speaking, probiotic bacteria that have been freeze dried do not need to be refrigerated, and others do. Generally.
Fact – a lot of the probiotics that you buy from the chilled section of supermarkets often spend large amounts of time UNREFRIGERATED when in transit.
So should you class a probiotic supplement that states that it requires refrigeration as superior to one that does not?
Section Summary | Whether or not a probiotic supplement requires refrigeration is dependent on how it was manufactured, and has no bearing on its efficacy. Pay attention to manufacturer instructions on the proviso that you have done your research on the manufacturer as described above.
7. Does the probiotic supplement contain binders, fillers, & allergens?
I’m sure you’re aware of your own allergies. If you’re not, however, then the general rule with supplements is to opt for formulas that are certified as both dairy and gluten free as a minimum. Gluten and the protein in dairy, A1 Beta Casein are both implicated in a wide number of inflammatory conditions & immune responses.
As for binders & fillers, I will write a separate post on just this. For now, I would recommend that you look at the binders and fillers that are used in the probiotic supplements that you are analyzing, often found in the ‘Other Ingredients’ section on the supplement facts panel.
Several common examples of these binders and fillers include-
- Magnesium Stearate
- Stearic Acid
- Microcrystalline Cellulose Powder
- Titanium Dioxide
- Citric Acid
- And more
Make sure that you are comfortable with putting the binders and fillers contained in your supplement of choice in your body.
Section Summary | When choosing a probiotic, avoid common allergens like wheat and dairy and research the binders and fillers in your probiotic supplement of choice.
Wrapping Things Up
If you’ve been struggling with choosing a probiotic, then I hope that you found this post useful. If you have any questions about how to choose the right probiotic for you, please post them in the comments section below and I’ll come back to you. I’ll also shortly be adding my favorite probiotics that I use with my clients to this post, so check back soon.