Over the past few weeks, I’ve written blogs on the importance of probiotics and healthy bacterial flora (In case you missed them, you can read here and here).
As a result, I got a bunch of questions about choosing a probiotic. So today, we’re going to continue the series and talk about how to choose probiotics and a few of my personal picks.
First, let’s review why you should be taking a probiotic:
Our body is composed of billions of symbiotic, friendly bacteria (check out the short video below). These bacteria serve many very important functions, but must be maintained by eating fermented foods or supplementing with probiotics.
One of the main functions is immune regulation. These friendly bugs compose the microflora that help ensure proper immune development/function. It’s estimated that 80% of our immune system is produced in the gut, so GI problems and microflora deficiency can directly lead to reduced immunity.
The good bacteria are great bouncers. Just like a bouncer at a trendy club, good bacteria keep bad bacteria, yeast and other infectious organisms in check . The presence of the good bacteria blocks the bad bacteria and yeast from growing out of control. (This is why when you take an antibiotic that kills off friendly bacteria, you may end up with a yeast infection.) In addition, they produce enzymes that help kill bad bacteria.
Gut bacteria also help us digest certain fibrous foods that we couldn’t digest on our own. Without them, we can’t completely break them down, get bloated and may suffer from irritable bowls.
Gut bacteria are needed to produce B12, Vitamin K and butyrate. These are all important nutritional components needed for basic biochemistry of a balanced system.
The digestive system is actually part of the neurological system. The amount of good bacteria is positively associated with improved memory and reduced risk of depression and dementia. In recent research published last year, authors noted that individuals with poor gut flora where more likely to have depression and Alzheimer’s.
Good bacterial flora is also linked to reduced incidence of diabetes, leaky gut, irritable bowl, eczema and other auto-immune diseases (check out this article for even more on this).
More on the complexities of the microbiome
A wave of research has recently confirmed not only the extent of the importance of “good” bacteria for our health, but has also elaborated on the complexities of this microbiome. Not only are these important bugs in our mouth and GI tract, but they also line our skin and airways and reproductive organs. We’re quite literally swarming with bacteria- and this is a very good thing.
Watch the video below for a great explanation of the roll of bacteria and the microbiome.
What to look for when choosing a probiotic
Brand reputation/quality. Ideally you want a high quality over-the-counter supplement or professional grade if that’s available to you. The standards, quality assurance and temperature controls are better than most drugstore brands.
Proper temperature control. This falls along the same lines as quality assurance, but more specifically on how a product is shipped and stored after manufacturing. The bacteria are fragile and can become compromised in transit or if stored in a hot stockroom. And when you get it home, don’t forget to store it properly. Most products are shelf stable under room temperature, but I keep mine in the fridge, just in case.
Quantity: Look for higher bacterial count. Depending on what you’re looking to do ( health maintenance vs. during a detox, for example). I’d aim for a minimum or 10 billion CFU.
Quality: Check for diverse bacterial strains. You can chose a targeted formula, like women’s or immunity, but some brands don’t base these formulas on much evidence (buyer beware!). Your best bet is to to do your homework and look for a variety of strains to cover you bases, the more the better. The graphic below is a pretty good summary of some important strains and function. (Unless, of course, your healthcare provider or nutrition specialist chooses a specific combination of strains for you).
Formulas that feed the bugs. The best formulas have prebiotics (for example, fructooligosaccharides) in the same formula as the probiotic. Prebiotics are bacteria food. They help ensure better bacterial survival, absorption and assimilation into the gut.
When you find one you like, switch it up. It’s good change up your formula occasionally to help inoculate your gut with a larger variety of bacteria.
The following is a short list of formulas I tend to recommend to my clients. Some of these can be found at your local health food store, some are only available through a healthcare provider/nutrition specialist (professional grade). Though these are great general options, this list doesn’t replace specific recommendations made for you by your health care/nutrition provider.