The more we learn about microbes, the more we find our health is tied to their well-being. Each person carries more bacterial cells than human cells in their body, and the gut is especially rich in microscopic friends. While our understanding of just how these bacteria influence our health is still in early stages, it’s clear that the balance of communities in our system plays an important role.
A variety of fermented foods can help maintain that balance, but supplements are also a quick and easy way to get a decent dose of good bacteria. Follow this helpful guide to find out what you should be looking for in a supplement. And remember, always discuss with your doctor first before deciding to take a probiotic supplement.
Types of Probiotic Bacteria
There are 500 to 1,000 different types of bacteria in your intestines amounting to trillions of microbes and all have their own role to play. Probiotic supplements contain a very small subset of bacteria believed to be helpful in nourishing key communities. Here are a few to look out for:
Lactobacillus: This is a diverse family of bacteria, some of which are found in dairy products. Lactobacillus bulgaricus, acidophilus, gasseri, rhamnosus and casei are all species that have some research supporting their use.
Saccharomyces boulardii: This is a type of yeast that some research suggests may be helpful in some cases of diarrhea and other GI complaints.
Bacillus coagulans: Similarly to Lactobacillus, this is thought to be a member of naturally occurring good bacteria. More research needs to be done, but some studies indicate it may help with certain gastrointestinal illnesses and diseases.
Bifidobacteria: Another intestine-dwelling bacteria that some studies are showing may be helpful for certain types of diarrhea and in conditions where the lining of the intestine and the bacterial communities that live there are damaged. The infantus kind is particularly helpful.
Streptococcus thermophiles: Unrelated to the Strep from “Strep throat,” this bacteria seems to work with Lactobacillus to produce helpful nutrients.
Our probiotic fact sheet has some in-depth information on some of these strains and their uses.
Check the Label
Here’s some key information you need to find on the label before deciding to buy:
Goals: Read the label and make sure the health claims of the probiotic match what you’re hoping to get out of it.
Ingredients: Check to see if the pill contains something you might be sensitive or allergic to. While the pill contains bacteria, the coat may be made from many different ingredients.
Accuracy: Check to make sure the pill contains what it says it does. Any bacteria mentioned on the front should also be mentioned in the nutritional information on the back.
Storage: Check the storage instructions. Many probiotics need to be refrigerated, but not all do. If you don’t refrigerate when you need to, the bacteria in the pill may die, which lowers your dose.
Dose of bacteria
Recommendations about just how many bacteria should be in each pill vary widely, likely because we still don’t know exactly how much is enough. The dose is measured in colony-forming units (CFUs), and most will recommend a billion per dose is a good place to start. You should also know that these supplements can sometimes cause gassiness and bloating at the beginning, but this normally calms down after two weeks. To avoid this, try taking a lower dose to start out and then increase the dose once your body is used to it.
Follow the Expiration Date
This is more important for probiotics than for most other supplements you might be taking since there are living organisms in those pills. Some bacteria in an older probiotic close to the expiration have may have died, making the dose you get likely lower than what’s on the label.
Do Your Research
When deciding on a supplement, do your research about which brands with which bacteria might be best for your health goals. Check out this buying guide and if you see unfamiliar bacteria on a bottle, you can also punch it into MedlinePlus for more information on what research has been done for which uses. Last, you can always call the manufacturer and ask for the research on their claims.