Probiotics: experts explain what to look for when buying supplements

Posted by for Strong Women

We asked the experts what to look out for when shopping for probiotics supplements to help you find the right one for you and your gut.      

Everyone’s talking about probiotics right now. From the benefits for your digestion to the impact on your mental health, these live microorganisms have got themselves a great reputation.  

Found in foods such as yoghurts, kefir, sourdough bread and some cheeses, probiotics have been found to help to balance the good and bad bacteria in your stomach. While we always recommend a food first approach, certified health education specialist Brielle Merchant tells Strong Women that if you aren’t getting a wide enough range of live bacteria in your food, you can take supplements to up your intake. 

But knowing what to look for is not particularly straightforward. Not only are there different strains, but there are also literally billions of these things called colony-forming units, otherwise known as a balanced group of bacteria. When combined, all of these things can create different environments for your gut – and some are more beneficial than others.

We’ve put together a list of the key things to keep in mind when researching and shopping for probiotic supplements. However, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor before taking probiotic supplements, especially if there is a specific issue you want to tackle.

Benefits

The benefits of balancing the good and bad bacteria in the gut are wide-ranging and far-reaching. According to women’s health dietician Valerie Agyeman, having an imbalance in your gut bacteria can cause issues with everything from digestive to mental health. Taking probiotic supplements can help to redress these problems. 

Valerie explains that consuming probiotic foods may have benefits like “supporting immune health and protecting against infections, reducing the symptoms of bowel disorders like ulcerative colitis, IBS and necrotising enterocolitis, reducing the risk and severity of certain allergies, and improving symptoms of mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and stress, among others”. Supplements can help to maximise these benefits if you aren’t getting enough probiotics in your diet, however research is still ongoing into the full effects of taking probiotic supplements. 

Whatever you’re taking probiotic supplements for, though, just make sure that they are not past their expiry date, “as the product needs to be live when you take it”, says doctor and personal trainer Aishah Iqbal

Upping your intake of probiotics has been proven to improve symptoms for people living with digestive disorders.

What strains of probiotic to look for

Aishah explains that there are different groups of probiotic strains, the most common being lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. “Within these groups you then have different species and each species has different strains”. 

She goes on to say that “people turn to probiotics for different reasons, and the strain to look for varies depending on that reason”. For example, if you are having problems with your digestive health, then lactobacillus bacteria is what you need to look out for, while bifidobacterium is the way to go if you want to give your immune system a boost.

However, Brielle says that a lot of probiotics supplements “combine more than one strain to provide many health benefits”, rather than just targeting one specific issue. This will likely have a more positive effect on your gut and overall health than a more limited supplement would. Either way, Aishah recommends doing your research or speaking to your doctor “to understand which species of probiotics may be more helpful”. 

Getting a balanced formula

It’s also important to know that you’re getting a good balance of strains. The thing to look for when you’re trying to find a balanced formula is the number of colony forming units, also called CFU. Basically, according to Aishah, “the bacteria quantity needs to be large enough to form colonies” in order for it to have the desired effect, and different species of probiotics are effective at different levels of CFU. 

She goes on to explain that “some strains of bacteria require up to 20 million CFU”. With the various mix of species and strains in each probiotic supplement, this means that most supplements will contain between one and ten billion CFU per dose, “which is a safe dose to aim for”. There is research to indicate that higher levels of CFU are safe, but according to Aishah, “this can be expensive and we are not yet sure of exactly how this could impact an individual”. To be sure you’re getting the right balance for you, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor before taking probiotics. 

Natural sources of probiotics

While probiotic supplements can be beneficial, the best way of ensuring you have a healthy balance of gut bacteria is to eat right. Since probiotics are live microorganisms, they are found in fermented foods, with yoghurt being one of the most probiotic-rich foods you can get. Other dairy products such as kefir, which is a fermented milk drink, buttermilk, and some types of cheese are also great to eat if you want to up your intake. 

Yoghurt, kefir, buttermilk, and some types of cheese are all great to eat if you want to up your probiotic intake.

There are plenty of plant-based options, too, for if you’re vegan or lactose intolerant. Eating fermented soybean products like tempeh and miso, as well as foods such as pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi, are all good ways of naturally increasing your intake of probiotics and balancing out the bacteria in your stomach. 

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