Gut Health - Navigating the World of Probiotic Supplements - Part II
With so many probiotics on the shelves, it can be confusing to choose one. In this blog, we are going to discuss what you need to consider when choosing a probiotic.
When looking for the right probiotic, there are five main things to consider:
· Consumer vs practitioner brands
· The number of colony-forming units (CFU’s)
· The number of various strains
· The research on the strains
· Additives, fillers or binders
Let’s take a look at what each of these means.
1. Distinguish between consumer and practitioner brands.
Practitioner brands are only sold through medical practitioners and should be overseen while taking. They are usually a much higher therapeutic dosage and can cause more detox symptoms. This type of probiotic is most effective when taken after using a round of antibiotics or if an individual has a case of gut dysbiosis.
Consumer probiotics are sold over the counter either online or in retail stores. These brands are best for maintenance and for promoting general health and well-being as they are just not as strong. If you are choosing a brand off the shelf how do you know whether to buy a brand say from CVS or wholefoods or from your trusty acupuncturist office? Does it matter?
The brands on the shelf are really self-regulated so it’s wise to educate yourself on the brand and the quality of the supplement. In the supplement industry, there is no one checking up on claims so companies can get away with saying just about anything that’s not referencing a disease state.
The FDA doesn’t have the capacity to police supplements, ultimately they only look into a supplement if a problem is reported. To help sift through what’s good and what’s not, you can look at third-party testing sites that have validated what the product says it does. One reputable site is consumerlab.com. Learning how to read the labels and a little research can go a long way.
First, you’ll want to decide which type of probiotic you want, a lactic acid bacteria or LAB, a soil-based organism (SBO), a spore former, or yeast. There is no right answer here. It’s really a matter of bio-individuality and discovering which kind works best for you.
Some probiotics claim to be doctor-formulated, this just means that another set of eyes has been on the formulation based on that doctor’s practical experience in the clinic. If the supplement is formulated by a doctor this can be a bonus, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is better than some of its competitors.
2. Brands are often sold touting their CFU counts. CFU stands for colony-forming unit and refers to the number of live bacteria. The prevailing myth is that the more CFU’s the better the supplement but, really this depends on the type of probiotics and the effect you are looking for.
For example, spore-forming bacteria require a much lower CFU count to be effective. Spore forming bacteria are bacteria that form spores and can survive harsh conditions such as Bacillus Substilis.
In regard to lactic acid bacteria, you’ll want to look for CFU’s of one billion or higher. Here again, a high CFU count is commonly thought to be best but the latest research is steering more toward quality over quantity. It’s more important what the strain does and how well it’s been researched then how many CFU’s it contains.
The CFU only counts viable bacteria. When the company lists the CFU count it’s an opportunity for them to be clear and transparent. It’s also an opportunity for them to be dishonest. Since there isn’t much regulation in the supplement industry, the number listed may not correspond to the actual count. This means that they won’t guarantee that the number on the label is present by the time you buy and use the supplement. Some of the bacteria may have died off. What you’ll want to look for is if the CFU count states “at the time of manufacturer” + the date manufactured. Make sure to look at the date the product was manufactured and if the number of CFU’s is guaranteed when comparing brands on the shelves.
3. Pay attention to the number of various strains. Some probiotics have only one strain while others can contain over 12 different strains.
How do you know which one is right for you? This comes down to a process of trial and error since as we mentioned everyone’s microbiome is different. Think as the single strain bottle as the Cleveland Cavaliers. Lebron James. One superstar player doing all the work. That bottle with 12 strains is the Golden State Warriors, a real team effort with synergistic effects.
Which one you prefer is up to you but in general, there must be synergy with the strain in your microbiome. There are no absolutes in the way the human body works.
4. Note the research on strains. When looking at the label of a probiotic sometimes there are letters and numbers behind the strain name. For example, lactobacillus Plantarum (299V). What does this mean? Lactobacillus is the family name, Plantarum is the species name, and the 299V is the specific strain.
The latest research is showing that every strain may be different meaning that your bottle of lactobacillus Plantarum may behave differently than mine.
That letter and number can be traced back to an actual scientist who owns that strain. Meaning they have isolated a particular strain and created research on it. This is all a fuzzy area because bacteria are always growing and adapting and changing. But when research is conducted around certain strains those companies do their best to halt this evolutionary process so that their strain behaves consistently in the same way.
When a strain has been researched you can look into whether it’s been checked for potential problems like antibiotic resistance. If a strain is listed on the packaging with no number or letter following it, it might be great but there is no guarantee that it will behave in the same way as a similar strain classified by a specific number.
5. Lastly, you’ll want to look into which binders and fillers are in the probiotics you are considering. Some formulas may require additives to keep the probiotics stable. As a rule, you’ll want to avoid supplements containing magnesium stearate, silica, and titanium dioxide.
This is a lot of information to digest so let's do a quick recap:
The 5 main things to consider when choosing a probiotic are distinguishing whether you benefit from a consumer or practitioner brand, the # of CFU’s, how many strains the probiotic contains, the research on the strains, and which fillers or binders are added to the supplement.
Remember always consult with your doctor before taking or trying a probiotic supplement to make sure they are right for you.