How to Choose the Best Probiotic

probiotic supplements in blister packs
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Probiotics seem to be all the rage these days. With many purported benefits and a relatively low risk of side effects, manufacturers are taking advantage of booming business opportunities. Rather than leave your health in the hands of big business, it is important that you be as educated as possible about the best types of probiotics so you can choose what is right for you and your family.

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are live microorganisms (bacteria or yeast) that have been shown to have a health benefit for humans.

They are available in supplement form or in probiotic foods and drinks. Probiotics are thought to be akin to, and to increase the level of, the "good" bacteria found in your intestines. These "good" bacteria are thought to enhance our health through their support of our immune systems.

There are many types of probiotics on the market, two of the major groups are Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium. Regardless of groups, each have a variety of strains. Although it is not known for sure, some scientists think that different strains have different effects on your body.

Why Now?

The current probiotic push lends itself to the question, "If humans got along fine without taking a probiotic supplement for thousands of years, why are they so important now?" Although there is no definitive answer to this question, there have been some significant cultural changes that have had an impact on the gut flora (the population of organisms that populate our intestines).

These include the use of antibiotics, diets lacking in gut-healthy plant food, refrigeration and improved sterilization of foods. What we don't yet know is true is if probiotics actually turn around these changes and support the health of your gut flora.

How Probiotics Are Thought to Help Your Health

Probiotics are theorized to have the following health benefits:

  • Boost the immune system.
  • Enhance the production of B vitamins.
  • Help to ward off infection.
  • Reduce the population of harmful bacteria.
  • Improve the thickness and strength of the mucus that lines the intestines.

Probiotics for Specific Health Problems

Although many manufacturers will make claims regarding the benefit of probiotics for all sorts of disorders, there is not always research to back up those claims. It can be difficult to conduct quality research on probiotics due to the wide variety of strains available. And many studies show mixed results. However, given that, there is some research support for the use of probiotics for the following health conditions:

Additionally, there is preliminary research that indicates that probiotics may play a role in the prevention of the following health disorders:

How to Choose a Probiotic Supplement

If you decide to use a probiotic supplement, and get clearance from your doctor for doing so, be sure to read the label carefully. You want to be sure that the supplement contains live strains of the bacteria or yeast, and that the life of these strains is guaranteed at the time of use, and not at the time of manufacture. Other points of comparison are the number of bacteria strains and the number of colony-forming units, although this does not necessarily guarantee results.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has no federal standards for probiotic supplements. Therefore, you run the risk of purchasing a product without any guarantee that it contains its advertised probiotic strains, that the strains are alive, or that the product is free from unhealthy ingredients. Therefore, it may be best to choose a brand-name probiotic that has research backing their effectiveness. Here are some examples:

  • Align
  • Culturelle
  • Florastor
  • VSL#3

Remember that probiotics are live organisms. Be sure to use your purchased probiotics before their expiration date and to store them according to package instructions. Some formulations require refrigeration while others, because they are in dormancy, are okay in a cool, dry place.

A Cautionary Note

Although most studies have shown few, if any, negative side effects, it is important to keep in mind that research on probiotics is still in a preliminary phase. There may be some risk for people who have certain health conditions. As with any supplement, it is essential that before you begin to take a probiotic supplement, that you speak with your physician first to help to ensure that you will not be putting your health at risk.

Sources:

Goldin, B. & Gorbach, S. "Clinical Indications for Probiotics: An Overview" Clinical Infectious Diseases 2008 46:S96-S100.

"Oral Probiotics: An Introduction" NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) Website accessed June 13, 2016.

"Probiotics: What They Are and What They Can Do for You" American Gastroenterological Association Website accessed June 13, 2016.

Szajewska H, Konarska Z, Kolodziej M. "Probiotic Bacterial and Fungal Strains: Claims with Evidence." Digestive Diseases 2016:34(3):251-259.

Vanderhoof, J. & Young, R. "Probiotics in the United States"  Clinical Infectious Diseases 2008 46:S67-72.

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