Choosing A Probiotic

By Bonnie Jenkins

My son loves to travel. But he isn’t the typical vacationer. Nope. Brandon likes to “live like the natives.” In fact, just last week he headed for a 10-week stint in Costa Rica.

Of course, mom couldn’t let him take off without a few natural essentials. The most important was a two-month supply of probiotics.

Shopping for those probiotics was an experience in itself.

Not only was I looking for a multi-strain probiotic, I needed one that didn’t require refrigeration.What I was confronted with was an entire section containing dozens of different probiotic products.

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Fortunately, I’ve done a lot of research on probiotics so I knew what to look for. But if you aren’t familiar with these bacterial buddies that can boost digestive health and immunity, it can be downright confusing.

The truth is, all of those probiotic products aren’t created equal. Some only contain one strain of beneficial bacteria. Others can’t guarantee that their “live” strains will survive the trip through your digestive tract. To get the most bang from your probiotic, look for probiotics that have a long history of use.

Probiotics can come from human, animal, soil or food origin. Human and food strains are most compatible with the human gut. Since some soil-borne organisms, like anthrax, can be harmful—or even deadly—avoid any product containing them. Your probiotic should meet or exceed their label guarantees of live cell count (CFU/g) at time of purchase and expiration date.

Probiotics are live microorganisms that live in little or no oxygen in the gut. This means that they will die when they are exposed to oxygen, moisture and heat. To make sure your probiotic stays viable, choose a product that is packaged in blister packs. The manufacturer should also flush the probiotic with nitrogen to eliminate oxygen before it is packaged.

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Some of the products on the market only offer one or two strains. The most common strain is Lactobacillus acidophilus. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this common probiotic. In fact, it’s a great broad-spectrum strain. But to get the most from your probiotic, look for a supplement that incorporates many complementary strains versus just one or two isolated strains.

Probiotic strains differ in many ways—and this can affect their survival. Many probiotics aren’t able to survive the acid in the stomach and bile in the small intestine to reach the desired location in the gut. In some cases, fewer than 25 percent can make it through. Check the packaging or the manufacturer’s web site to make sure the product you are thinking of buying is acid and bile resistant.

Beyond simple survival, many probiotics are not able to colonize in the gut. These transient bacteria can provide health benefits only on their way through the digestive tract.

Colonizers, on the other hand, multiply and continue to provide benefits when they reach their destination. Colonizers can multiply from 100 to 200-fold, so 5 billion will become 500 billion or more.

Some probiotics are also able to produce enzymes that aid in digestion—proteases, lipases, amylases, cellulase and lactase. Natural production of digestive enzymes declines with age so it helps to have the microflora produce additional enzymes.

Other probiotics can produce vitamins to help the user meet nutritional needs. This is particularly important with vitamin B12 since we lose the ability to absorb it as we get older.

So, how many strains do you really need? To improve your overall health, look for a probiotic that contains several varieties of Lactobacillus. This type of bacteria will give you broad-spectrum benefits. Lactobacillus acidophilus primarily live in the intestines and the vagina. But there are other lactobacillus strains that are effective, including Lactobacillus bevis, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Lactobacillus casei.

You also want a product that contains several types of Bifidobacteria. Bifidobacterium are one of the key species of bacteria that live in the colon. The most well-known Bifidobacterium strain is Bifidobacterium longum, however several other strains such as Bifidobacterium breve and Bifidobacterium infantis are also beneficial.

Using the most effective probiotic supplement you can find will help recondition the pH of the colon. This will not only kill harmful bacteria, it will also provide an environment conducive for the growth of friendly bacteria. To help you stay healthy, the colon must maintain optimum pH, which is the acid to alkaline balance. Friendly bacteria thrive in a balanced pH environment while harmful bacteria prefer a higher acid-to-alkaline ratio.  When a probiotic supplement helps normalize pH, it is also supporting the good bacterial strains you were born with.

When you do find a probiotic supplement you like, make sure you take it at least once per day. For best results, take it without food. Best of all, they are totally safe so even a first-time probiotic user can confidently take the recommended dose every day.


Bouhnik Y, et al. The capacity of short-chain fructo-oligosaccharides to stimulate faecal bifidobacteria: a dose-response relationship study in healthy humans. Nutrition Journal. 5(8), 2006.

Duc le H, et al. Characterization of Bacillus probiotics available for human use. Applied and Environmental Microbiology.  70(4):2161-71, 2004.

Lin JS, et al. Different effects of probiotic species/strains on infections in preschool children: A double-blind, randomized, controlled study. Vaccine. 27(7):1073-9, 2009.