Think of probiotics like you would a multivitamin—something you take every day because it's good for you.
Probiotics are the beneficial live bacteria that help keep our microflora (the bacteria in our gut) in balance. They also keep our immune system—since about two-thirds of it lives in the gut—strong. Taking a probiotic is helpful for almost everyone, and studies link the benefits of a healthy gut to a healthy body and mind. (One recent study even reported how they prevent eczema and food sensitivities in kids when a woman takes them during pregnancy and breastfeeding.)
But with so many options out there, how do you select a good probiotic supplement to get the maximum benefits and make sure you're not wasting your money? Here are four tips on choosing a probiotic supplement from integrative health doc Dr. Bindiya Gandhi of Revive Atlanta, MD:
1. Refrigerated vs. non-refrigerated
Buy one that is in the refrigerated section at the grocery or health-food store—unless it's going to prevent you from taking it. "I personally advise patients to refrigerated probiotics because heat can sometimes kill off the live bacteria. However, probiotics manufacturers have gotten smarter and better and have also formulated great products that do not require refrigeration. Those are great for travelers and people on the road, or to keep a bottle at your work desk so you don't forget it. You have to see what works for your lifestyle," Gandhi says.
2. What to look for on the label
First, probiotics are typically measured in colony-forming units (CFU). Adults should look for at least 20 billion CFUs. This is important to make sure the supplement is offering a diverse group of bacteria for your gut. (I'm a big fan of the Garden of Life brand for all supplements, including probiotics. Here's the one I'm currently taking.)
For children, Gandhi recommends 1 to 5 billion CFUs for infants to younger children and 5 to 10 billion CFUs for older kids. (Here's a USDA-organic, chewable version at 5 bill. CFUs that Garden of Life makes for kids.)
Second, make sure that the supplement lists the bacterial strains, and that there are more than five strains of bacteria in each pill. Where to find those? On the back of the bottle—just look for names you can't pronounce like bifidobacterium, saccharomyces boulardii and lactobacillus collinoides!
If your intention with taking a probiotic is overall good health, then you don't need to get more technical than this. However, it's important to note that there are tons of strains of bacteria that can target specific ailments and have different functions, such as preventing colds, diarrhea and IBS, to name a few. If you are looking to remedy or prevent a particular "condition," speak with an integrative health doctor who can help you choose the strains that can help.
3. Expiration date
The bottle should have an expiration date, which will tell you how long the bacteria in the supplement are expected to last. If it doesn't have a date, don't buy it. You don't want to take an expired supplement since the bacteria will be "dead" and of no use to you.
4. Switching up the supplement
Change brands every other month or when you're done with your probiotic supplement supply. Again, this is all about diversifying the gut bacteria, Gandhi says.
OK, now that you know WHAT to look for when choosing a probiotic, here are a few extra nuggets of info, including when to take it and how much they cost:
When and How Often Should You Take a Probiotic Supplement?
Take the supplement every day and on an empty stomach so that it is better absorbed. The probiotic will be most effective with daily use. If you miss three or more days in a row, your system resets, and it's like starting from scratch, Gandhi says. If you are on an antibiotic to treat another issue, take the probiotic about three hours apart from the antibiotic so that the antibiotic doesn't just kill the good bacteria in the probiotic.
What are the Potential Side Effects?
Probiotics are very safe to take. "The most common side effects are bloating and gas," Gandhi says.
Is There Anyone Who Should NOT Take Probiotics?
Those whose immune systems are severely compromised, such as in the case of cancer, should use caution and always check with their doctor first before taking them.
How Much Do Probiotics Cost?
The price varies depending on brand and the number of CFUs, but I've found they are around $20 to $40 for a 30-day supply. These bacteria-filled supplements are a preventative measure and an investment in your health for sure. While they aren't cheap, neither are medical bills...
Can't You Just Get Probiotics from Food?
Probiotic-rich foods and drinks include yogurt, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, miso and kombucha. These fermented foods are great to include in your diet, but they're not going to provide the same diversity of good bacteria for your gut on a daily basis like a probiotic supplement does. Also, "pasteurization of yogurt kills off the good bacteria," Gandhi explains. "The live cultures don't always survive the acidic pH when they're being manufactured."
P.S. Frozen yogurt doesn't count because, during the freezing process, the bacteria die off. Sooooorrrrry!
Interested in learning more about gut health and probiotics? Check out our blog about Everything You Need to Know About Drinking Kombucha.