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Not All Probiotics Are Created Equal

Not All Probiotics Are Created Equal
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There is still a surprisingly small amount of research on probiotics. Although the idea of beneficial bacteria has been around since the late 1800s, and probiotic supplements have been around since the 1930s, there haven’t been many human clinical trials. We do know that probiotics produce enzymes that help break down chemicals that the normal human gut has a hard time with, such as the oligosaccharides in legumes. That digestive assistance results in less gastrointestinal distress and better absorption of nutrients.

Probiotics also elicit an immune response in the intestines that can help your body deal with certain harmful pathogens and other GI problems. There is actually a mechanism we learned about called cross-talk where, through chemical signals, the bacteria communicate with your body and your body communicates back.

What you read on the probiotics label is part truth, part hype, and part marketing.

As internationally recognized probiotic microbiologist Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders told us, “There’s often a gap between the hype and the science; the hypothesis versus what’s been demonstrated. People like to tell stories: My probiotic will survive stomach acid and others won’t. Instead look at the clinical benefit.”

Unlike the clinical studies, the bottles don’t have to tell the whole truth. “Dietary supplements are marketed for the general population. They are not marketed for at-risk or patient populations, and companies are not obligated to establish safety for these populations,” Dr. Sanders said.

This is because probiotics are classified as Dietary Supplements by the FDA, meaning that manufacturers “are not required by FDA to undergo rigorous premarketing evaluations for efficacy or safety.” In fact, every bottle of probiotics on the market invariably has this fun little disclaimer printed on it:

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

This is caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) times a thousand. The burden is entirely on you to take the label’s claims that it’ll “balance your gut bacteria” or “boost your immunity” with a grain of salt, and to talk with your doctor before you start popping capsules.

Probiotics are basically in hibernation.

Relatively few probiotic supplements contain what you might consider “active” bacteria. They are usually dehydrated (through freeze-drying, spray drying, microencapsulation, etc.), which causes the bacteria to go into hibernation until they’re reconstituted in the body. This process makes them shelf stable, though we encountered a lot of conflicting opinions about whether or not cold storage really makes a difference. Some probiotic supplements require refrigeration to ensure maximum potency, and even probiotics that don’t necessarily require cold storage still typically recommend it to slow down cell death and prolong shelf life. This has led to a widespread belief that all probiotics must be refrigerated, and that any brand that claims to be stable at room temperature can’t possibly support viable bacteria.

To get to the bottom of this, we took two probiotic supplements from our top contenders list that didn’t require refrigeration and used them as starter cultures for yogurt.

You’re not living alone in your body. In the humble human gut, there are hundreds of trillions of bacterial occupants, and they’re not just living there — they’re working for you. A small but growing body of research on our gut tenants suggests that hacking your microbiome can not only improve the digestive process, but also contribute to a laundry list of ancillary health benefits. We’re talking weight loss, lower cholesterol, decreased anxiety, improved immune function, fewer seasonal allergy symptoms, and relief from a host of gastrointestinal malities, from irritable bowel syndrome to traveler’s diarrhea. We’re in! But — where to begin?

  1. Start small. Generally, it’s best to start out with a lower CFU count and ramp up as needed. Starting out with the high-proof stuff can cause unpleasant physical side effects, like cramps and bloating, as well as monetary ones — higher potency supplements are almost universally more expensive. Of course, follow your doctor’s guidance. The verdict on ideal colony count is still out .
  2. Take your probiotic with a meal. This raises the pH in your stomach, which means more bacteria will make it through to your gut, including the few non-acid-resistant strains like S. Thermophilus. And take them with plenty of water; that will further dilute the acidity of gastric juices.
  3. Get your prebiotics in. There are tons of the simple carbs probiotics love in whole fruits and vegetables, including onions, garlic, bananas, asparagus, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar, and artichokes. If you’re worried you might not be getting between five to 20 grams per day, consider taking a prebiotic supplement, usually a powder or drink mix. (Dr. Perlmutter recommends acacia gum.)
  4. Keep up your probiotic routine. Probiotics stick around for a while, though for how long isn’t precisely clear. You have to keep taking them to continue to reap the benefits.

While there is no magic cure-all pill, finding the right probiotic for your body (and keep consistent!) can help your GI trains running on time. For a list of our recommended brands and formulas, check out the rest of our research here:


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