The Best Probiotic Supplements in 2020, According to a Doctor and Dietitian
Whether you’re dealing with GI issues or just finished a round of antibiotics, you’ve probably thought about taking a probiotic supplement. The friendly bacteria are essential for a happy gut and play a pretty big role in good health overall. So even if you try to get your fill by eating yogurt, popping a pill might seem like smart extra insurance. And it can be, as long as you know what to look for and manage your expectations accordingly.
What are probiotics, exactly?
Probiotic bacteria work to keep the community of microorganisms in your gut—and throughout the rest of your body—in a healthy, balanced state. These bugs play a key role in digestion, keeping bad bacteria at bay, and regulating the immune system, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. We get them primarily from eating fiber-rich foods, which promote the growth of the friendly bacteria, as well as from fermented foods like yogurt, tempeh, and sauerkraut. But you can also get them from supplements.
What a probiotic supplement can (and can’t) do for you
Probiotic bacteria do important jobs to keep your body functioning at its best. “The last several years have seen an explosion of research on the importance of the microbiome and the many health benefits associated with a balanced one. Probiotic supplements offer a way to help maintain this balance,” says NYU Langone Health gastroenterologist Roshini Rajapaksa, M.D. In other words, they might serve as a sort of insurance to support your overall health, particularly if you don’t eat a lot of fiber or fermented foods.
As for addressing specific health issues? Recently, the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) approved the use of probiotic supplements to prevent nasty bacterial infections like C. difficile in adults taking antibiotics. “Just one round of antibiotics can negatively alter your gut microbiome for up to a year, because good bacteria are killed off when the illness-causing bacteria are killed,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, R.D.N., nutrition expert and author of Smoothies & Juices: Prevention Healing Kitchen. “Taking a probiotic supplement can help restore the balance of good bacteria in the gut.”
A growing body of evidence also suggests that probiotics can play a role in improving digestion and decreasing bloating (particularly in those with gastrointestinal disorders), improving immune function, promoting healthy blood sugar, and fighting acne and skin inflammation. Some studies have even demonstrated a link between probiotics and mood disorders like depression.
That said, there aren’t any guarantees. “The research is evolving, so looking to probiotics as a ‘cure’ for a disease is probably premature,” Dr. Rajapaksa says. “If you’re looking to treat a medical condition it’s best to use probiotics under the guidance of your doctor.”
How to find the best probiotic supplement
As with other dietary supplements, probiotics don’t need to be tested or approved by the FDA before hitting the shelves. That means it’ll take a little bit of savvy on your part to find a quality option. Some tips to keep in mind:
Seek out the right bacteria: If you want a probiotic for overall health support, look for supplements containing well researched strains. Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, or Saccharomyces boulardii have been studied the most, Dr. Rajapaksa says. If you’re trying to address a specific health concern, you’ll want to seek out a probiotic that’s been studied for that issue. Ask your doctor about strains that have been shown to be helpful.
Pay attention to the CFUs: The number of colony-forming units, or CFUs, can tell you how many probiotics you’re getting per dose, Dr. Rajapaksa says. There’s no official recommendation for how many CFUs you need, but most supplements contain between five and 10 billion per dose, Harvard Health experts say.
Look for a few key extras: A good supplement has time-release technology and delivers a dose of prebiotics—fibers that act as food for probiotic bacteria. “The time-release technology ensures the probiotic reaches your intestine and the prebiotic component aids in absorption,” says Dr. Rajapaksa.
Make sure it’s been stored correctly: A supplement doesn’t necessarily have to be refrigerated in order to be legit. “If the product was freeze-fried, it’s heat stable and can be stored at room temperature,” Largeman-Roth says. But if you’re buying a probiotics that’s labeled as heat-dried, it definitely needs to be in the cold-box. “Make sure that it was stored properly at the store,” she notes. Finally, take a look at the use-by date to confirm that you’ll be able to use up the bottle before it expires.
Look for third-party verification: Look for a seal of approval from a third-party certification program like Consumer Lab, NSF International, or the US Pharmacopeial Convention (USP). That ensures the product has been tested for quality, purity, and potency—plus that it actually contains the ingredients it claims (and no hidden extras).