Probiotic supplements have gained popularity in recent years. More and more people are aware of the importance of gut microbiome health and probiotics. But with so many probiotic supplement brands on the market, it can be overwhelming to select the right probiotics.
What kind of strains should you choose? How many CFUs? What are CFUs anyways? What types of bacteria should you be looking for?
These are great questions and I will answer them all in this article. Let’s dig deep and learn how to select the right probiotics.
What Are Probiotics
Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria and microbes. They make up your gut microbiome. Some of these microbes are beneficial to your health and help you thrive. Others are harmful and can lead to health issues. Your body needs a healthy balance of both. A healthy gut microbiome has more beneficial bacteria than harmful ones. Probiotics are friendly bacteria. They are live microorganisms that support your health. They help to keep the bad bugs in check. They are not only beneficial for your gut but offer many other health benefits supporting other parts of your body (1, 2).
You can get probiotic support through food and supplementation. In the next sections, I will go over the best probiotic-rich foods and how to select the best probiotics. But first, let’s talk about the benefits of probiotics and the signs of microbiome imbalance.
Benefits of Probiotics
Probiotics have many health benefits, including:
- Improved digestion (3)
- Reduced risk of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), IBDs, leaky gut, and colon cancer (3)
- Better immune function (4)
- Reduced inflammation (5)
- Improved mood and mental health (6)
- Improved cognition, memory, and brain health (7)
- Healthier skin (8)
- Reduced risk of chronic disease (9)
Signs That You Should Take Probiotics
Selecting the right probiotics can help you overcome a variety of chronic health issues. But what symptoms should you be looking for before selecting your probiotics?
Signs and symptoms of gut microbiome imbalances and signs that you may benefit from probiotics may include:
- Bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, acid reflux, and other digestive issues
- Fatigue and sleep issues
- Headaches and migraines
- Muscle aches or joint pain
- Eczema, rashes, acne, and other skin problems
- Allergies and sinus issues
- Getting sick often
- Weight gain
- Brain fog, poor memory, and other cognitive complaints
- Mood swings and irritability
- Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues
- Hormonal issues, including menstrual irregularities and thyroid issues
- Autoimmune issues
- Other chronic symptoms and chronic health issues
Other Reasons to Consider Probiotics
Besides experiencing chronic symptoms due to underlying microbiome imbalances, there are other reasons you may want to consider taking probiotics.
- Antibiotics: Taking antibiotics can clear out not only the bad bacteria behind an infection or illness, but also the good bugs. If you are or have been taking antibiotics, taking probiotics and eating plenty of probiotic-rich foods is critical to replenish your gut microbiome.
- Chronic stress: Chronic stress may also disrupt your gut microbiome. If you are experiencing high stress and/or poor sleep, probiotics are particularly important. I also recommend that you actively try to reduce your stress, use stress management strategies, such as breathwork and meditation, and improve your sleep habits.
- Following a poor diet: Following a diet high in inflammatory and processed foods and low in nutrient-dense whole foods is not good news for your gut health. Even if you are not yet experiencing symptoms, poor dietary choices can catch up with you quickly. Of course, I recommend that you improve your diet, remove inflammatory foods, and focus on nutrient-dense whole foods, including greens, veggies, fruits, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, and organic animal protein. But along with a healthy diet, I recommend adding probiotics.
- Traveling: When you are traveling, your diet will be less in your control. Maybe healthy food won’t be available on the go. Maybe you are trying new foods that don’t always agree with your tummy. Maybe your eating schedule is a bit more erratic. Probiotics can help to keep your gut healthy during these unusual times.
Probiotics may come from both food and supplements. Most people can benefit from using both. Eating the right probiotic-rich foods may be just as important as selecting the right probiotics. However, they are not for everyone. If you have histamine intolerance, fermented foods may not be right for you. They are high in histamine and can be triggering.
Probiotic-rich foods and drinks include:
- Miso soup
- Fermented vegetables and herbs
Types of Probiotics
There are so many different probiotic brands out there. How do I choose the right one? That’s a great question. Let’s start with the four main categories of probiotics.
Food-based probiotics may also be referred to as lactic acid-producing bacteria. There are two main types of food-based probiotics: lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. Both of these types can be classified into various subspecies, variants, and strains.
Two of the most well-known types of lactobacillus strains include lactobacillus acidophilus and lactobacillus plantarum. Lactobacillus acidophilus is a specific strain found in fermented milk, including kefirs, and is a common ingredient in probiotic supplements. It is very beneficial for your intestinal tract, urinary tract, and in women, for vaginal health. Beneficial effects may include supporting a healthy gut lining, reducing IBS-like symptoms, and supporting weight loss (10, 11, 12, 13). Lactobacillus plantarum is found in olives, sauerkraut, and other lactic-acid fermented food. It is bile-resistant and may be beneficial for anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial, and immunomodulatory activities (14, 15).
The two most well-known bifidobacterium strains include bifidobacterium lactis and bifidobacterium longum. Bifidobacterium lactis plays a critical role in your gut microbiome. It is a strong probiotic strain with a great ability to survive the transit through your gastrointestinal tract. It may support your gut lining and immune function (16, 17). Bifidobacterium longum is also a strong strain that is resistant to a low pH and survives the gastrointestinal environment easily. It may also support your gut lining, reduce inflammation, and aid immune function (18).
Probiotic yeasts, such as saccharomyces boulardii, are natural, nonpathogenic yeasts with a probiotic potential. They are resistant to antibiotics and stomach acids. They may help to decrease the risk of constipation, diarrhea, and gut inflammation. They are one of the best choices for reducing the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacterial and pathogenic overgrowth. Selecting these probiotics may be great for antibiotic-associated and traveler’s diarrhea (19, 20, 21). Saccharomyces boulardii also has been shown to increase DAO, for breaking down dietary histamine, and other digestive enzymes in the gut.
Soil-Based, Spore-Forming Probiotics
Soil-based probiotics are known for their ability to form bacterial spores. They tend to be resistant to stressors, such as heat, stomach acid, light, and time. This means that they may offer long-term viability and a lower risk of degradation compared to other probiotics. They are commonly recommended for various gastrointestinal uses. Spore-forming probiotics are an excellent choice if you have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). Patients with SIBO often react negatively to other probiotics. Spore-forming probiotics, however, may offer similar benefits to antibiotics. They may help to reduce gut inflammation and to support the gut lining (22, 23, 24).
Combination probiotic blends offer a combination of different probiotics, including food-based lactobacillus and bifidobacterium probiotics, soil-based, spore-forming probiotics, and probiotic yeasts. Considering the combined powers of each type of probiotics, selecting combination probiotics may be the best option to support your gut microbiome, gut function, immune system, brain health, and other areas of your health.
However, it is not the best option for everyone. If your body doesn’t do well with certain bacterial strains of probiotics, combination probiotics supplements may not be the best choice. For example, if you have SIBO, sticking to soil-based, spore-forming probiotics may be the best idea until you recover.
Probiotics for Histamine Intolerance
I’ve already mentioned that while eating probiotic-rich fermented foods regularly is a good idea for most people, it is not the best choice if you have histamine intolerance. If you are experiencing symptoms of histamine intolerance, you want to be careful with probiotics as well. Choosing the right strains can reduce the risk of histamine reactions and support your recovery. If you have histamine intolerance, you want to avoid Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus Bulgaricus, Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus delbrueckii, and Lactobacillus helveticus. Look for probiotics specifically designed for people with histamine intolerance.
How to Select the Right Probiotics
Understanding the different types of probiotics is the first step. Probiotic supplements are not made equal.
CFUs and Strains
Different probiotic supplements have different strains and amounts of bacteria, different doses, and different forms. You want to make sure that your probiotic supplement has a variety of probiotic strains and has billions of colony-forming units (CFU), ideally 30 to 50 billion. I recommend daily probiotic supplementation.
Considering Your Specific Health Issues
For most people, combination probiotics are the best choice. However, if you have histamine intolerance, SIBO, or other specific health issues, you may need another type. If you are a highly sensitive individual or have lots of digestive complaints, a soil-based formula may be the best. If you have histamine intolerance, you want to avoid the strains I mentioned in the earlier section.
Many commercial brand probiotic supplements include lactose, cornstarch, gelatin, wheat, and other substances. This may be an issue if you have allergies or sensitivities. Always check the ingredient list and avoid ingredients you may have issues with. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains are great dairy-free options.
Quality, Storage, and Expiration Date
Make sure to choose a high-quality brand. Some probiotics require refrigeration. Others are shelf-stable and can be stored at room temperature. Always read the box and store your probiotic supplement properly. Always check the expiration date and don’t use expired probiotics.
A 7-Day Trial
I recommend that you do a trial run on the probiotic of your choice for about 7 days. The first few days, you may experience some symptoms as your gut flora is still adjusting. This should only last 3 days the most. If you are still experiencing unwanted digestive symptoms or side effects after 7 days, it is probably not the right probiotic supplement for you. If you feel better after 7 days, you can continue with the probiotic of your choice.
After a period of treatment, I sometimes recommend cycling your probiotics every 1 to 3 months. This means that after every 1 to 3 months, you choose a different brand of probiotics. This can diversify your gut microbiome. Once you find 3 or 4 brands of probiotics that work well for you, you can continue rotating between them throughout the year. If you are really sensitive and can’t find more than one probiotic supplement that works for you, don’t worry about rotating.
Other Ways to Support Your Gut Microbiome
Consuming probiotic-rich fermented foods and taking probiotic supplements daily is not enough for optimal health and wellness. You need to support your gut microbiome through diet and lifestyle.
Here are some tips to support your gut microbiome:
- Follow an anti-inflammatory, gut-friendly, nutrient-dense diet rich in greens, vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, grass-fed meat, pasture-raised poultry and eggs, and wild-caught fish.
- Eat lots of prebiotic-rich foods, including asparagus, apples, Jerusalem artichokes, jicama, onion, garlic, bananas, pistachios, and almonds. They feed the probiotics in your gut.
- Eat postbiotic-rich foods, including kefir, coconut water, apple cider vinegar, and fermented herbs. Postbiotics are the byproducts of the fermentation process of probiotics and work together with pre- and probiotics. Learn more about prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics and how they work together here.
- Only take antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and other medication if you have to.
- Support your body’s detoxification pathways. Follow my tips in this article.
- Reduce your stress levels and practice stress management strategies, including meditation, breathwork, guided relaxation, and journaling.
- Get 7 to 9 hours restorative sleep at night.
- Move your body regularly and exercise five days a week.
If you are looking for advice on selecting the right probiotics and coming up for the best plant to improve your symptoms naturally, we can help. If you are experiencing symptoms of microbiome imbalance, digestive health issues, or other chronic symptoms, I recommend that you speak with your doctors first for more personalized health information and support. I invite you to schedule a consultation with me here to see if you can benefit from the strategies listed in this article.
If you are dealing with any chronic health issues, for advice on how to improve your nutrition and health, I welcome you to start a functional medicine consultation with me for further personalized guidance. You may book your consultation here.
Check out my Histamine Intolerance Course here. Learn on your own time, from anywhere. Get an inside look at the most helpful functional medicine tests for pinpointing imbalances, ways to identify and manage the most common (and sometimes surprising) mast cell triggers, and learn what to eat, what to avoid, and why.