When you buy a probiotic supplement, search the label for key pieces of information, such as the amount and type of live bacteria per dose. Beyond being sure you choose a quality product, the thing to remember about probiotics is this: Your individual goals and health needs determine which probiotic is best for you. While probiotics are generally safe for most people, they may pose a health risk for elderly people, anyone with a weakened immune system or anyone who takes medications. Always consult with your health care provider before taking supplements.
Vital Information About Bacteria
The label should state the number of live bacterial cultures. Over-the-counter probiotics contain 1 billion to 10 billion organisms per gram, according to the World Gastroenterology Organization Practice Guidelines. For comparison, probiotics are added to foods in concentrations of about 10 million to 100 million cultures per gram, according to the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.
The supplement should also report the name of each bacteria, including the genus, species and strain. While your gut contains hundreds of different bacteria, the majority are types of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus.
The most important probiotic strains come from Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Bifidobacterium bifidum and Streptococcus thermophilus, reports the University of Florida IFAS Extension.
Expiration Date and Storage
Don’t buy any probiotic unless the label reports an expiration date and storage instructions. If the product doesn’t have an expiration date, or the date has expired, the bacteria won’t be alive, and they must be living to provide benefits.
The bacteria can also die if the supplement isn’t stored properly. Even if the bacteria are dried and dormant, such as in a capsule or powder form, many must be refrigerated to stay viable.
Types of Supplements
Capsules and tablets are effective, but they tend to contain less bacteria than probiotics in refrigerated powder forms, according to the University of Florida.
When researchers tested a variety of probiotics, they found that liquid-based products survived stomach acid better and delivered more live bacteria to the intestine than freeze-dried products, according to a report in Beneficial Microbes in January 2015.
Only one-third of probiotics tested in 2009 contained the number of live bacteria and the species claimed on the label, reported the Journal of Chemotherapy in December 2010. The label should name the manufacturer, so be sure it comes from a reputable company. Also see if the probiotic's quality was verified by an independent organization such as the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention.
Significance of Bacterial Strains
If your goal is to boost good bacteria in your intestine as part of a lifestyle to maintain optimal health, chances are the bacterial strain you consume isn’t critical. But if you want to treat or prevent a medical problem, such as irritable bowel syndrome, you will need the type of probiotic scientifically proved to help that condition.
Different strains of bacteria deliver specific benefits. For example, Lactobacillus acidophilus SDC alleviates irritable bowel syndrome, while Lactobacillus acidophilus CL1285 prevents antibiotic-related diarrhea.
Your physician can work with you to determine which bacteria you need and how much you should take.