How to Choose Probiotics
In our article “Probiotics for a Healthier Life”, we listed foods containing probiotics that help build and maintain a healthy microbiome (the vast army of healthy bacteria that work to keep your body and mind functioning well). We have included that list at the end of this article as well. Unless your taste in food includes sauerkraut and the other food items in that list that don’t appear on many family dinner tables, you may limit consumption from that list to yoghurt. There are many supplements to choose from depending on your personal requirements to get the varieties of probiotics needed for a happy, healthy microbiome.
It is important to choose probiotics that contain certain strains (species), as well as an adequate level of cells or CFUs (Colony Forming Units, generally stated in billions).
How many – and which – strains should we be looking for when shopping for probiotics? Let’s consider strains first. There are as many as 72 different strains. Some commercially available products state that they contain 32 strains. Many doctors and experts recommend a minimum of 9 probiotic strains.
There are five core probiotic strains from two of the probiotics families that are widely available and serve to maintain a healthy microbiome: Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus brevis, Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium lactis, and Bifidobacterium longum. These are considered the most important ones for your well-being and brain health by David Perlmutter, M.D., author of two New York Times bestselling books, Grain Brain and more recently, Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain for Life
L. plantarum is found in kimchi, sauerkraut, and other cultured vegetables. It survives in the stomach for a long time, does a great deal to fortify the immune system and controls inflammation in the digestive tract making it one of the most beneficial probiotics in your body. It prevents disease by combating the pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria. Most importantly, it reduces the risk for leaky gut—which makes for better brain health. In addition, L. plantarum quickly digests protein, which helps prevent and treat food allergies. Finally, L. plantarum absorbs and maintains desirable levels of important nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and antioxidants. In summary, L. plantarum is an essential probiotic.
L. acidophilus is the probiotic found primarily in fermented dairy products, including yogurt. Be sure that it contains active cultures (live cells). It benefits the immune system by maintaining sufficient levels of good bacteria. In women, it works to stop the growth of a fungus that causes yeast infections. L. acidophilus also helps maintain appropriate cholesterol levels. In the small intestine, L. acidophilus combats harmful bacteria that hinder digestion. It also produces vitamin K, which promotes healthy blood flow. It is shown to be effective in treating diarrhea, colds and respiratory ailments (in combination with B. lactis, see below), and lowering cholesterol.
Sauerkraut and pickles are sources of L. brevis, which bolsters your immune system. Prescription medications used to combat vaginosis, a common bacterial infection of the vagina, contain L. brevis because it is so effect in treating it. L. brevis also acts to inhibit the effects of certain gut pathogens. Taken with several other Lactobacillus strains, it has been effective in treating depression. And most importantly for many people, it boosts levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor), a hormone that promotes healthy brain growth.
Bifidobacterium lactis (also called B. animalis):
Fermented milk products like yogurt contain this probiotic. B. lactis, has the ability to prevent illnesses of the digestive system. Studies indicate that it can be effective in treating some forms of diarrhea. What’s most important about this strain is that strengthens the immune system and , with L acidophilus, treats colds and respiratory ailments.
B. long improves lactose tolerance and prevents diarrhea, food allergies, and fights pathogens. It’s also has antioxidant properties, and helps control free radicals. It may reduce anxiety as well. B. longum also helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels, as does L. acidophilus. Studies indicate that it has the potential of warding off colon cancer.
Other Probiotic Strains
- Streptococcus thermophilus fosters healthy small intestine tissue and breaks down a protein in cheeses that causes allergies.
- Bacillus laterosporus combats many pathogens.
- Pediococcus acidilactici aids digestion and protects against pathogens.
- Bifidobacterium breve makes for a healthy colon, especially if you must take antibiotics.
- Bifidobacterium infantis is for good digestion and occasional constipation.
- Bifidobacterium bifidum promotes good digestion, normal, healthy looking skin. and strengthens the immune system.
- Lactobacillus bulgaricus fights pathogens, neutralizes toxins and promotes balance.
- Lactobacillus casei aids digestion, the immune system, and bowel regularity.
- Lactobacillus gasseri aids digestion, balances blood sugar, and helps maintain normal body weight.
- Lactococcus lactis aids digestion, helps maintain a healthy microbiome, especially by preventing leaky gut.
- Lactobacillus paracasei lessens fatigue, protects teeth from cavities, and enables people to better tolerate environmental factors.
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus promotes a healthy microbiome, helps UTI (urinary tract infections) and strengthens the immune system.
- Lactobacillus salivarius combats bad bacteria in the small intestine. It is essential for oral health because it kills pathogens in the mouth. This strain and many others thrive on prebiotic foods like bananas, barley, tomatoes, and garlic.
Probiotic CFUs (colony forming units)
Think of these as individual living cells. When you select a probiotic, whether in a store or online, be sure to check the label of each probiotic you consider buying. They look something like this:
Notice that the 2 probiotics with the greatest number of CFUs (a total of 30 billion, almost 6% of the total) are two of those on Dr. Perlmutter’s list of the 5 most important probiotics. Also, notice that the product label pictured above contains a prebiotic fiber, so it includes food for the probiotics listed. There are 11 individual strains of probiotics with a total of 51 billion active, living (bad bacteria) fighters in this product. There is no reason to settle for fewer CFUs unless your doctor recommends a strain that isn’t offered with as many CFUs or recommends probiotics with a lower number of CFUs. Dr. Perlmutter has formulated a number of probiotic products for Garden of Life. Those probiotics can be found on this page: Dr. Formulated Probiotics. The label will state the recommended serving size, usually 1, 2 or 3 capsules. The stated number of CFUs is the total per serving, not per capsule (unless the serving size is 1 capsule). So, for the probiotic whose label is shown above, each capsule contains 51 billion CFUs. Another probiotic for which the serving size is 2 capsules and the stated number of CFUs is 50 billion, so each capsule contains 25 CFUs.
Expiration Dates and Refrigeration: Read the Label
Because each of the billions of CFUs is a living organism, some of them will die. Standard practice by the supplement companies is to state the number of CFUs that are expected to survive until the expiration date stated on the label. However, all may not do that. Some that do will say so on the label. Not all companies will recommend refrigeration on the label, but if you are buying a large number of capsules or quantity of probiotic liquid, you will increase the number of surviving CFUs because refrigeration does extend their life expectancy.
In summary, it is recommended that you look for the “essential five” probiotic strains in a single product with 30 billion or more CFUs per serving. More and more doctors with M.D. degrees are open to recommending non-prescription supplements, such as probiotics, as remedies for certain ailments and beneficial to overall health maintenance and well-being. However, if your physician seems to lack knowledge of probiotics and how they fortify the microbiome, you may wish to consult a nutritionist or a medical professional who believes in integrating natural and pharmaceutical solutions to treat illnesses and maintain good health.
Foods that Supply Probiotics:
- Yoghurt is one of the best sources of probiotics. Be sure that the yoghurt you buy has active cultures and doesn’t contain more sugar than is good for you. Yogurt may be better than milk for people with lactose intolerance. This is because the bacteria turn some of the lactose into lactic acid.
- Kefir is a fermented probiotic milk drink. It is made by adding kefir grains to cow’s or goat’s milk. Like yogurt, kefir is generally well-tolerated by people who are lactose intolerant.
- Sauerkraut is finely shredded cabbage that has been fermented by lactic acid bacteria.
- Tempeh is a fermented soybean product.
- Kimchi is a fermented, spicy Korean side dish usually consisting mainly of cabbage.
- Miso is a Japanese seasoning traditionally made by fermenting soybeans with salt and a fungus called koi.
- Kombucha is a fermented black or green tea drink.
- Traditional buttermilk is simply the leftover liquid from making butter. Cultured buttermilk, which is the kind you generally find in American supermarkets, usually doesn’t contain probiotics.
- Natto is another fermented soybean product, like tempeh and miso.
- Certain cheeses, including cheddar, mozzarella and gouda. Look on the food labels for active cultures because not all cheeses contain probiotics.