Probiotics are found almost everywhere today — in your local supermarket, drugstore, or health food store, as well as online — in pill or powder form and in some foods. It can be helpful to find probiotics in so many places and in so many forms, but it might also be very confusing.
Where do you start when it comes to choosing the right probiotic for you? Well, when it comes to up-to-date research about probiotics, while probiotics have been around for a long time, experts agree there is still more to learn about how they work and who they help best.
A lot of the research is about how probiotics can help your gut health. Asking your doctor about which probiotics are helpful versus being a waste of money is important. Your doctor or other trusted health care provider can help you find the best fit, based on your health needs and medical background.
Not all probiotics are the same
Probiotics are living, microscopic (very small) organisms, which are most often bacteria (tiny germs), but they can be other organisms, like yeasts. The most common probiotics come from two groups of bacteria, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Within these groups, there are many species, which each have strains that impact the body differently. For example, certain species and their strains of E.coli and Streptococcus, can be germs that harm the body, while others can be probiotics that can help the body.
Companies and labels
Probiotics currently on the market are foods or dietary supplements. To date, no probiotic products have been approved by the FDA to treat, lessen, cure or prevent specific diseases. Probiotics are made in many ways by different companies. How well a probiotic works may differ from brand to brand and even from batch to batch within the same brand.
Your doctor can help you understand the differences and make the best choice for you, by helping you to read product labels and the facts contained within them.
Labels should tell you the probiotic’s group, species and strain, and how many of the microorganisms will still be alive on the use-by date. A higher number of or type of bacteria does not mean the probiotic will work better.
Also, while some products guarantee how many organisms are in the probiotic at the time it was made, often it is less clear how many organisms are present at the time it was actually taken.
Labels don’t always include which strain is in the product, and only the group and species — such as Lactobacillus acidophilus or Bifidobacterium lactis — are listed. In addition to talking to your doctor, you can call the company and find out exactly which strains it uses and what research it has done to support its health claims. This information may be available on the company’s website, too.
The packaging should also include information about how the probiotics should be stored. Some probiotics need to be refrigerated, and some do not. Even those that are dried and dormant, like those in powder or capsule form, must be stored right away, or they may not be as effective or helpful.
Probiotics have a shelf-life, as they are living organisms, so it is important to check that the package has a sell-by or expiration date on it. It is key you use the probiotics before the expiration date.
Buying online rather than in stores
If you are ordering from the Internet, which is becoming more and more common these days, make sure you do your homework on the company you are ordering from. There are scammers who are willing to send you fake products labeled as probiotics. The best-case scenario is the ingredients are harmless things like garlic powder. Worst case scenario, the probiotics could be laced with powerful herbs, prescription medicines or illegal drugs. Unfortunately, some companies may simply take your money and disappear into thin air.
Best advice: Stick to well-established companies
Whether you are buying from your local stores or online, the advice is the same — buy from companies that are well-known to you and in general. The longer a company has been around, the more likely its products have been appropriately tested and studied. Probiotics currently on the market, after all, are foods or dietary supplements. To date, no probiotic products have been approved by the FDA to treat, lessen, cure or prevent specific diseases. It is important to know what information is available to read and what it means with your health care provider’s help.
Some places that have been making probiotics for some time include:
Resources for you
Despite the wealth of available information about probiotics, it is important for you to feel empowered and comfortable enough to talk about probiotics with your health care provider. You should discuss any fears, concerns or questions you have about how probiotics may work with any of your current prescription, over-the-counter medicines, or supplements and what are any side effects.
The American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) has information about probiotics in relation to specific gastrointestinal (gut) conditions, which can help you talk to your health care provider in a more informed way on its probiotic patient resource page. The recommended list of companies above, also comes from this patient resource. Visit the AGA GI Patient Center for trusted information created by specialists for patients about GI conditions, procedures, diet and medications at patient.gastro.org.