Good bacteria, a.k.a. probiotics: they’re everywhere, but especially in your gut! As someone with IBS and mental illness, I have witnessed the power of probiotics firsthand.
At different points in my life, probiotics have both helped and hurt my digestive health. The right probiotic can make a huge difference – while the wrong one can lead to a day spent close to the toilet. (Yikes!)
Your gut bacteria are responsible for everything from your weight to your mood – which means changes to your intestinal flora affect your entire body. For example, have you ever experienced digestive distress when taking antibiotics? Or felt as though you had less energy than usual? Now you understand why!
One of the reasons why gut bacteria have such a powerful effect on our mood is that 90% of the body’s serotonin – your body’s ‘happy hormone’ – is made in the gut. What strains of probiotics live in your gut, and how much of each strain, impacts your body’s serotonin production. And when the body lacks adequate serotonin, mental illness, especially depression, can ensue.
Everything from stress to medications to disorders (like IBS!) can affect the ability of probiotics to survive and function in the gut. When bodily conditions aren’t optimal for good bacteria, it might be time to try a probiotic supplement.
But what probiotics does your body need for optimal digestive and mental health? And how do you choose a probiotic supplement that corresponds? As someone who’s been taking probiotics since 2017 – and tried nearly every brand under the sun – I’m here to impart my wisdom on what makes a good probiotic (and why!).
How to Choose a Probiotic
Visit your local drugstore and you’re likely to find an entire wall of supplements devoted to digestive health. Many of these supplements contain strains of probiotic bacteria designed to address digestive and mental health concerns. Some probiotics even address women’s vaginal health, restoring the body’s natural flora to ward off infections!
If you’re not a biologist, reading the label on these supplements can be confusing. The nomenclature of bacteria is often near impossible to pronounce without an advanced degree. Plus, there are so many different strains that it’s hard to decide which one is worth the price tag.
On that note, here’s my guide to shopping for the perfect probiotic supplement for YOUR specific concerns and lifestyle….
First, let’s clarify how many probiotic organisms a supplement should contain for its bark to equal its bite. Any probiotic should contain a minimum of one billion Colony Forming Units (CFUs). This number represents the amount of viable organisms in the product that are able to recolonize your gut. Without enough viable organisms, your probiotic won’t have the positive long-term effects you desire — leaving you as much as $30 to $50 poorer and equally as frustrated.
Similarly, you should always check the expiration date on your probiotics prior to purchasing and prior to taking your daily supplement. The expiration date on probiotic supplements represents how long the organisms inside are viable for after purchase; naturally, an expired product won’t provide enough viable CFUs to recolonize your gut.
Be sure to pay attention for any special directions on the package regarding storage, as some probiotic organisms thrive best in specific temperatures or conditions. Personally, I like to keep my probiotics in the refrigerator to elongate their shelf-life — but certain strains won’t reproduce at cold temperatures. Therefore, it’s important to read the directions before storing and taking your supplement.
Species and Strains
Last but not least, let’s talk about the specific strains of probiotics that provide the best overall benefits for your gut health. There are thousands of “proprietary blends” of probiotic organisms on the market today, but you’ll notice that most have a couple characteristics in common.
Most commercial probiotic strains belong to the families Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. These families are the most widely studied for their positive effects on digestion. In addition to being found in probiotic supplements, these families often comprise the “live active cultures” in probiotic yogurts such as Activia.
So, what makes Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium unique — and why do we need both in a probiotic strain? The short answer is that we have two intestines. Each family prefers to colonize a different intestine: Lactobacillus colonizes the small intestine, while Bifidobacterium makes its home in the large intestine, or colon.
Maintaining good health in both our small intestine and our colon allows us to maximize our overall digestive well-being. Below, I’ll highlight some of the superstar strains of probiotics to look for the next time you’re seeking a digestive health supplement.
Lactobacillus Acidophilus. Ever seen a probiotic advertised as “acidophilus?” The abbreviated name refers to this strain of Lactobacillus, one of the most popular and most widely studied strains of gut bacteria. The species helps digest dairy foods, making it an important supplement for those with lactose intolerance, and supports everything from gut to vaginal health.
Lactobacillus Rhamnosus. L. rhamnosus has been studied in adults and children, making it safe for young ones to take as well. It supports digestive and immune health, promotes weight management and helps maintain a healthy vaginal pH.
Bifidobacterium Lactis. B. lactic benefits your digestive system and immunity. This strain gets its name from the fact that it is one of the most popular “live and active cultures” used in probiotic dairy products, such as yogurt and kefir.
Bifidobacterium Longum. B. longum helps protect the intestinal walls from damage by partially breaking down carbohydrates and proteins — for example, lactose. Take it to support regularity, reduce stress and aid in the digestion of dairy products.
My Favorite Probiotic Supplements
As someone with IBS, I’ve repeatedly turned to probiotic supplements to aid digestion, relieve constipation and diarrhea and even to rebuild a healthy immune system following a course of antibiotics. Over the years, I’ve discovered a few favorite products that help support healthy digestion. Here’s a sampling of my favorite probiotic supplements, chosen from a long history of trial-and-error:
up4 Adult Probiotic Supplement. I do not hesitate to write that my favorite probiotic of all-time is up4’s Adult Probiotic Supplement. I love it both for its benefits and for its affordability; on Amazon, you can purchase a month’s supply for just $11 — an impressive feat given the competitive market for probiotics today! The supplement contains a super strain of L. acidophilus, as well as three strains of Bifidobacterium, including B. lactis, to support overall digestive well-being. It’s also made with clean, safe ingredients and free from major allergens, such as dairy, soy and gluten.
Culturelle. The classic probiotic supplement, Culturelle launched a trend that sparked a health revolution. My doctor first recommended Culturelle to me in high school, when I began suffering from vaginal yeast infections due to my birth control. The brand produces an affordable daily probiotic — 60 capsules for $22 on Amazon — as well as an antibiotic product designed to boost your gut health while treating an infection.
Align Women’s Prebiotic + Probiotic Supplement. A note on this product: this product is NOT for sufferers of IBS who are triggered by inulin or chicory root fiber! (Trust me, I learned the hard way.) Many products containing prebiotics are not IBS-friendly — in fact, the prebiotic benefits of FODMAPs are one of the reasons why the low-FODMAP diet is not recommended as a long-term solution. However, if you’re past the elimination stage of the low-FODMAP diet or don’t suffer from IBS at all (lucky you!), this probiotic is a fantastic choice for supporting digestive and women’s health. The highlight is that it contains cranberry powder in addition to pre- and probiotics, which helps prevent UTIs in those of us who are prone to them.
Brandless Daily Probiotic. For those of you for whom affordability is a primary concern, I recommend the Brandless Daily Probiotic. Brandless removes the “brand tax” from products, allowing them to sell the same formula as many of your favorite brands for cheaper. As a result, their Daily Probiotic costs only $9 for a month’s supply! (Hot damn.) And the benefits of the product are impressive as well: the Daily Probiotic contains 12 unique strains of probiotics, amounting to 10 billion CFUs (or 80 milligrams) of probiotic bacteria.