The beneficial gut bacteria living in your large intestine or colon have a number of diverse roles in the body, so keeping your gut in balance is of great importance to your health and well-being.
Probiotic supplements contain live microorganisms, providing a whole host of health benefits – for example, keeping bad bacteria at bay, boosting the immune system and preventing infections.
Though our hunter-gatherer ancestors certainly did not take probiotic supplements every morning, they were regularly exposed to sources of bacteria. These included those found in the soil, in animals and through contact with other humans, providing them with an abundance of beneficial bacteria and in turn kept them healthy (1) . However, nowadays a sterilized, Western lifestyle means we are no longer exposed to such beneficial bacteria. A probiotic supplement provides us with a convenient, alternative source of good bacteria.
There are many probiotic supplements on the market, but how do you know which is the perfect one for you? Here is a handful of important factors to consider before making your purchase.
What to Look For in a Probiotic Supplement
One of the main differences between different probiotic supplements is the type of bacteria they contain, also known as the strain. Your gut is host to billions of different bacteria of many different species. Some estimates suggest over 1000 different strains (2). Each of these different species plays a slightly different role in the body.
In terms of a probiotic supplement, not just any bacteria will do. Though we don’t yet fully understand the complex ecosystem of the human gut, there are some bacteria which are labelled as “good’, and we should choose a supplement containing these. When buying a probiotic supplement, choose a product which contains well-documented strains – that is, those that have been the subject of research in controlled clinical trials, as these trials provide the most accurate and up-to-date knowledge on the matter.
Beneficial bacteria can be found in fermented foods too, though they don’t quite provide the probiotic potency that a high-quality supplement does. Nevertheless, combining probiotic foods with a probiotic supplement is a really great way for you to maintain a healthy gut. Foods containing beneficial probiotic bacteria include sauerkraut, natural yoghurt, kefir, miso and kombucha.
Number of Organisms
It’s inevitable that some of the live organisms in a probiotic supplement will be damaged or destroyed as they make their way through the treacherous journey through the digestive system to their final destination in the colon. Therefore, opting for a supplement with a significant number of bacteria really does increase the chance that they will reach your gut intact. At least 2 billion bacteria per serving provides a good dose. You will find that some supplements contain as much as 200 billion live organisms, but there is no evidence to suggest that this quantity provides a better result. In fact, the average person people may not need these extremely high amounts of probiotics. In other words, more is not necessarily better!
Additionally, look for a supplement that displays potency at time of expiration – that is, the number of organisms at the date by which the product should be used. This will provide you with a good indication of the survival rate of the beneficial bacteria in the product. If the label doesn’t mention the potency at the time of expiration, the manufacturer is not making any guarantees that the product will provide benefit by the end of the shelf life and it is time to find a different supplement.
Probiotic bacteria are living organisms, so they can be killed when exposed to the wrong environment, including excess heat. For that reason, probiotic supplements should be kept in a cool, dry place. This doesn’t necessarily mean the fridge, just somewhere out the way of direct sunlight and heat. The need for refrigeration will vary from product to product, so check the label. Keep in mind also that you shouldn’t take probiotic supplements with hot drinks, such as coffee or tea.
Probiotic supplements most often contain freeze-dried bacteria, which are activated by moisture. It’s important for these supplements to be kept in suitable packaging which keeps moisture out. Some capsules are also prone to damage if kept in moisture-rich environments, such as a kitchen, so it’s another reason to store your supplements in a dry place.
Some manufacturers claim that using so-called enteric coating on probiotics provides a barrier that ensures beneficial microorganisms survive stomach acid. However, when we take a probiotic supplement we mimic the exposure to the bacteria-rich environment of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. There were no enteric coatings thousands of years ago. So why introduce them now? In fact, there is little evidence to suggest that enteric coating provides an effective delivery system for probiotics to the gut (3). Not only that, but enteric coatings will often contain a whole range of artificial ingredients as protection against stomach acid.
Though probiotic supplements alone provide very useful benefits, they have a greater effect when combined with prebiotic fiber. Prebiotics are a type of insoluble fiber. You can’t digest them, but your gut bacteria can and they use them as food to multiply and proliferate.
Prebiotic fiber is found naturally in foods such as bananas, asparagus, garlic, onions and chicory (4). Without a dietary source of prebiotic fuel, probiotic bacteria are unable to flourish as effectively. So look for a supplement that contains a range of prebiotic fibers.
Other Things To Look For
Choose a brand that’s non-GMO in order to make sure that genetically modified corn and soy weren’t used in the fermentation process. Ensure also that the product you purchase is dairy-free, gluten-free and soy-free. This increases the likelihood that that the manufacturing process is tightly regulated, with no chance of contamination from undesirable substances.
Looking for a probiotic supplement that checks all these boxes? Take a look at Synbiotics SB3: a new supplement that contains probiotics, prebiotics and vitamin C.
- Ehlers, Stefan, and Stefan HE Kaufmann. “Infection, inflammation, and chronic diseases: consequences of a modern lifestyle.” Trends in immunology 31.5 (2010): 184-190.
- Sears, Cynthia L. “A dynamic partnership: celebrating our gut flora.” Anaerobe 11.5 (2005): 247-251.
- Michail, Sonia, and Philip M. Sherman, eds. Probiotics in Pediatric Medicine. Springer Science & Business Media, 2009.
González-Herrera, Silvia Marina, et al. “Inulin in food products: prebiotic and functional ingredient.” British Food Journal 117.1 (2015): 371-387.