EN’s Probiotic Primer

Selecting clinically tested probiotics can help you gain specific benefits, such as gut support.

Your gut is home to trillions of friendly microbes, which are primarily bacteria, but also include some yeasts, which support health. You acquire these probiotics naturally, at birth, but many factors can affect the composition and number of your gut microbes over time, such as diet, antibiotic use, and stress. Thus, many people benefit from supplemental probiotics.

In the past decade, research on probiotics has skyrocketed. Growing evidence suggests probiotics may one day help treat chronic diseases, such as obesity, heart disease, and osteoporosis. Other probiotic benefits are more well established, such as supporting digestive and immune health. Your chances of gaining desired results are better if you know a little about probiotics and use clinically tested products.

What’s in a Name?

Probiotics are identified by their genus, species, and strain, such as Bifidobacterium (genus) infantis (species), 35624 (strain). Within each species, there are many different strains, which may have different benefits. Sometimes several different microbes that provide synergistic benefits may be combined in the same product. For general wellness, a multiple-species product is usually preferred rather than a single-strain product.

Dosing Probiotics

The number of probiotics in a supplement is expressed as colony-forming units (CFUs) and indicates the minimum number of live microorganisms at the expiration date. It’s generally advised to select probiotics with at least 109 (1 billion) CFUs per dose.

Tips for Taking Probiotic Supplements

  • Consult your health care provider, to ensure probiotics are appropriate for you.
  • Follow package instructions for the best way to take and store probiotics.
  • Take regularly. Supplemented probiotics generally do not survive in the gut more than a week or two.
  • Separate by at least 2 hours if also taking antibiotics, to avoid destroying probiotics.
  • Consume prebiotics, which are fibers that nourish beneficial microbes. Prebiotic sources include plant-based foods, such as asparagus, onions, and whole grains. Some probiotic supplements have added prebiotics, such as inulin.
  • Try again. For ongoing health issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome, try a specific product for 3−4 weeks. If your symptoms don’t improve, take a break and then try a different product to see if it works better.

—Marsha McCulloch, MS, RD

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