Probiotic supplements have become popular throughout the years because of their health benefits. However, in order to avoid side effects and enjoy these probiotic health benefits, one must understand what makes a good probiotic supplement.
Choosing a good probiotic can be complicated - CFUs, species, strains, multisyllabic probiotic names - these are all terms you will need to know to be an educated probiotic shopper. Thankfully with this handy guide you won't need a degree in microbiology to figure out what the best probiotic supplement is for you.
How to Choose a Probiotic
We've come up with a handy system to help you remember what to look for in a probiotic called "The Three D's."
The Three D's stand for Diversity, Dose, and Delivery.
1. Diversity of Probiotic Strains
If you looked inside your gut at all the bacteria you would notice that there are more organisms than there are people on the Earth. Each one of those organisms has carved out its own niche in your GI tract. This means that each one has a slightly different strategy of living inside your gut.
Some of these strains eat the sugars you eat, others thrive off of the fiber you eat. Each strain relies on a slightly different energy source and lives in a slightly different area of the gut. Some produce antibacterial compounds like lactic acid and others release compounds called bacteriocins to thwart off competitors.
The best microbiome (or probiotic environment) inside your gut is one that is diverse. Being diverse makes it more able to handle different kinds of threats and stressors.
For example if you look at your community you have teachers, lawyers, engineers, mechanics, politicians. It would not make sense for all the people in your community to be mechanics. What if someone invented a new type of transportation method that rendered cars obsolete? The community made of entirely of mechanics would have their livelihoods threatened while a community made up of different professions would be able to adapt and change.
Shekkar Challa, President of Kansas Medical Clinic and author of "Probiotics for Dummies," suggests taking a probiotic with multiple strains of bacteria because your gut contains at least 30 to 40 different kinds of probiotics. It would only make sense to supplement your body with as many different types of probiotics as possible. For example, have a look at the Supplement Facts label of DrFormulas' best selling probiotic Nexabiotic Advanced:
Each line on the ingredients label is a different species of probiotic. Probiotics are named in the following manner: The first italicized name is the family name, and the second italicized name is the species name. For example Lactobacillus acidophilus probiotics are probiotics of the acidophilus species which belong in the Lactobacillus family. Some labels will shorten the family name to just the first letter. For example Lactobacillus acidophilus can shortened to L. acidophilus.
Comparing two different species within the same family is like comparing the wolf to the coyote. The wolf is named Canis lupus whereas the coyote is called Canis latrans. There are differences between both even though they are both a part of the Canis family.
What it boils down to is this: whichever probiotic you choose it should have a diverse number probiotics such as Lactobacillus, Bacillus, Saccharomyces boulardii probiotic yeast, Bfidobateria, and Enterococcus.
2. Dosage > 10 Billion CFUs
Each probiotic comes with its own suggested dosage. Pick a probiotic that has at least 10 billion Colony Forming Units (CFUs).
Why 10 billion? One meta study (or study of studies) found that a dose of 10 billion was needed to reduce the duration of diarrhea.
In microbiology, a colony forming unit, or CFU for short, is a unit used to estimate the ability of bacteria or fungal cells in a sample to multiply. It is a measure of how many organisms are present.
Normally supplements are measured in milligrams, a unit of weight, but since each probiotic weighs differently, the most accurate to characterize how much probiotic is in each capsule is by colony forming units.
A small dose of any kind of drug or beneficial compound will simply be ineffective. Some probiotics will have a dose in the millions which is less effective than one having a dose in the billions. Other still will list their dose in milligrams of probiotic without stating how potent each milligram is.
So remember, when looking for a probiotic make sure it has > 10 billion CFUs.
3. Stomach Acid Resistant Delivery
What good is taking a probiotic if it doesn't make it past the acid inside your stomach? The stomach is the first organ encountered by things you eat or consume. It is full of acid and enzymes to help break down foods and initiate the digestive process.
Some probiotic organisms are able to resist stomach acid such as Lactobacillus species, Bacillus species, and Saccharomyces boulardi. However not all of them are. Even if species are acid-resistant not 100% of them will survive exposure to stomach acid.
Probiotics that come with a delayed release mechanism help to ensure that the probiotics inside reach the stomach and is dispersed in the gut, where they are most effective.
Delayed-release mechanisms come in a number of varieties.
- Enteric coated capsules are normal capsules that are then sprayed with an acid resistant coat to delay the release of its contents. Be careful as some of these coatings contain pthalates that are known hormone disrupting chemicals.
- Pearls with a stomach acid resistant outer layer. How these probiotics are made is that the probiotics are put inside a protective outer layer that is stomach acid resistant.
- Stomach acid resistant delayed release capsules. These capsules are made of a material that is resistant to stomach acid and release their contents once they get to the gut.
In conclusion, remember "the three D's" when picking out your probiotic. Make sure your probiotic has diversity (more than one name in the supplements facts), dose (CFU count > 10 billion), and delivery (some kind of delayed-release mechanism to ensure maximum availability of probiotics to the intestines).
Still have questions about probiotics? Check out our article on the most frequently ask questions about probiotics.