"What do I look for when choosing a good quality probiotic supplement?"
This is probably one of the most common questions I get asked when the topic of supplements or gut health comes up and for good reason!! Probiotics can be very beneficial to our health when we have optimal amounts and varieties thriving within our digestive system. However if our microbiome is unbalanced, it can be horribly debilitating to our health. As described by Chris Kresser;
"Among other things, the gut flora promotes normal gastrointestinal function, provides protection from infection, regulates metabolism and comprises more than 75% of our immune system. Dysregulated gut flora has been linked to diseases ranging from autism and depression to autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s, inflammatory bowel disease and type 1 diabetes."
In fact, the human gut contains more than 400 known diverse bacterial species and a healthy gastrointestinal tract contains 10 times as many bacteria as eukaryotic cells in the entire body. Basically meaning we are more bacteria than we are human....kind of creepy but awesome right?! Our health depends on the health of our bacteria. It's as simple as that and the science in there to prove it.
Here are some of the best ways we can take care of our little bacterial friends -
1.) Avoid Food Toxins
The Jaminet's who wrote the book and run the website "The Perfect Health Diet" have a great article on avoiding "food toxins" but I'll briefly summarize here. Eliminate and avoid all:
- Omega-6 rich oils (canola oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, etc.)
- Sugars (except from fruits and berries)
- Excessive amounts of fiber
2.) Instead, include these nutrient dense foods to feed your good bugs
- Lots of leafy greens like kale, dandelion greens and chard
- Non-starchy veggies like broccoli, asparagus and Brussels sprouts
- Fermentable fibers (aka "safe starches") such as sweet potato, yams, yucca, etc.
- Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, beet kvass, and other fermented veggies
3.) Treat any pathogens (parasites for example) that may be causing problems
The best way to do this is through a comprehensive stool analysis. And by comprehensive, I mean COMPREHENSIVE. Standard stool analysis that is typically ordered through your primary care physician is not comprehensive enough and will typically come back as "normal" even though you still have digestive problems! A comprehensive analysis checks the stool for malabsorption, yeast, parasites, pH imbalance, the need for digestive enzymes and possible bacterial overgrowth. If you're experiencing chronic digestive issues, this is absolutely necessary to have done!
4.) Supplement with probiotics
For anyone experiencing leaky gut, digestive disturbances or for people who suffer from Crohn's, Colitis, or other autoimmune disorders, the microbiome may be so dysregulated that probiotics are not only absolutely necessary but the only way to help restore the balance of healthy, good bacteria within your intestines. (People who suffer from a yeast sensitivity or histamine intolerance may actually be extra sensitive to fermented foods and unable to eat them, like me!) I honestly think that everyone should supplement with a probiotic regardless if you have known digestive issues or not. Unless you've been eating and continue to eat a perfectly balanced diet of the recommended foods above since you were born (by vaginal delivery, yes this makes a difference), never taken any antibiotics before, never been exposed to any potentially harmful pathogens or parasites and never experienced stress in your life, then you could stand to benefit from a regular probiotic routine!
Okay! Now that we know a little bit more about probiotics, let's get into what we need to look for when actually choosing a probiotic supplement...
1.) Variety trumps quantity
When reading probiotic labels, check out how many different strains of bacteria it includes. This will be more beneficial than the number of CFU's it contains. CFU stands for "colony forming units" and while many companies will try to sell you on the 'more is better" mentality, (50 billion CFU's!) there just isn't enough science to back this claim up yet. However, science has extensively had the opportunity to study the variety of different strains that exist and this is what we can infer. Different strains of probiotic bacteria have slightly different functions and are concentrated in various places along the digestive tract. Probiotic supplements that contain multiple strains tend to be more effective overall than products containing an extremely high concentration of just one or two strains. The variety of strains work in synergy to influence our health!
2.) Strains to look for
Because I'm not trying to write a book right now about probiotic strains and what they can be specifically beneficial for, here are some examples of key strains to look for on the back of a bottle. Keep in mind that probiotic strains will fall into two categories; lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. You may see these abbreviated on bottles as L. acidophilus or B. bifidum, for example.
- Bifidobacterium longum
- Bifidobacterium bifidum
- Bifidobacterium Lactis
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus
- Lactobacillus fermentum
- Lactobacillus acidophilus
- Lactobacillus plantarum
- Lactobacillus Brevis
3.) Examine the packaging and storage requirements of the probiotic
To ensure you're getting a probiotic that is actually alive when you crack open a bottle and stays alive as it makes its way through your digestive system, there are a few different things you can look for. First look for information on the bottle that may describe how their product actually works, how they keep their strains alive, if it needs to be refrigerated or if no refrigeration is necessary (aka shelf stable). Do they offer a money back guarantee? Is it stored in a light/ moisture blocking bottle? Is there an expiration date? The supplement industry does not require expiration dates so a product that provides an expiration date will provide some insight into the quality of their product.
4.) Delivery (Shipping, transportation, etc.)
By delivery I literally mean delivery! If you buy supplements that are refrigerated when you purchase them, make sure they stay cool while traveling home with them and put them right in the fridge when you get home! Nowadays there are various ways to purchase supplements online so make sure your probiotic is either described as shelf stable or will be delivered in the appropriate packaging to keep it cool during its journey. There is some controversy about purchasing supplements via Amazon because there can be such a variation in what company is actually supplying those supplements. That being said, I order from Amazon all the time. It's convenient and affordable which is exactly what I need when I already have so many other things to focus on in regards to my health. Like I said before, just make sure you look for how its going to be delivered, check the expiration date once you receive it and any other questionable tampering that may have happened during travel. Return it if you suspect it's no good!
Final Notes -
My two favorite brands are Prescript Assist* and Klaire Labs. While there are many trusted brands out there, these are the two that I have personally used most frequently and seen the greatest results with. I love that Prescript Assist has many soil based organisms (see below) and is also shelf stable so I can take it with my anywhere. Klaire labs is also wonderful and has a great variety of products to choose from if you need specific strains or require a probiotic for an infant or child. Keep in mind that it's also beneficial to switch up your probiotic brands every now and then to keep introducing new, diverse strains to promote a healthy gut microbiome. I recommend taking 1-2 probiotics a day or every couple days if your budget is tight. You can take them with or without food. I would try both methods, see if you notice a difference between the two and then decide which method is best for you!
Keep those little guys well fed! They can literally save your life ;)
*Prescript Assist contains Soil-Based Organisms. While not as extensively studied as probiotics from the lactobacillus and bifidobacterium genera, soil-based organisms hold extreme promise for modulating the immune system and correcting gut dysbiosis. They have been shown to have extreme therapeutic potential in Irritable Bowel Syndrome and provide probiotic organisms that are routinely missing from our modern, over-hygienic lifestyles yet are normal residents of a healthy gut.