Cure acne, heal indigestion, improve mood, and finally get six-pack abs. Nope, this isn't some fantasy wish list or bogus infomercial ad—it's what can actually happen to your body when you finally start taking the right probiotic supplement.
Probiotics are primarily taken as a supplement to maintain a healthy gut—beneficial bacteria in the stomach and small intestines keeps the digestive system functioning properly—but the other positive side effects of healthy gut flora include everything from clearing skin issues like acne and eczema to helping devotees ease depression symptoms and strengthen immunity.
"I recommend probiotics to my cardiology patients," explains Dr. Joel Kahn. "There have been many studies that strongly indicate probiotics are directly linked to lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, and improving heart strength in those with congestive heart failure."
While Kahn admits that creating a probiotic cocktail with specific strains that are particularly beneficial to one body "is complex", that doesn't mean that you can't pick your probiotic of choice based on your health goals. Not all probiotic supplements contain the same strains of bacteria, so you can certainly experiment with choosing a one based on your desired effects.
"You'll know a probiotic is working for you when symptoms like bloating, digestive issues, and fatigue diminish," explains Kate Doubler, the RN and holistic nutritionist behind Real Food RN. Sounds great, right? But with so many different products on the market—offered at a vast range of prices—how do you pick the one that will work best for your body?
As a rule of thumb, Doubler recommends staying away from refrigerated probiotics. "If they're hearty, they don't need to be refrigerated—that's a common myth! Save your money, because you want a probiotic that can survive without being chilled." Instead, look for probiotics that have a label that says "viable through end of shelf life." This ensures that no matter what, the promised amount of living microbes in each capsule will still be good by the time they reach your gut.
The intensity of a probiotic is measured in two ways: By the strains of bacteria in the jar, and the number of organisms in each dose or colony forming units (CFU).
According to Doubler, pick a probiotic that contains at least Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, as well as soil-based organisms like Bacillus subtilis, in order to promote a balanced gut flora. Most probiotic enthusiasts recommend choosing a blend that has at least 5 billion CFUs per part.
Robb Wolf, the author of The Paleo Solution, also recommends varying the types of probiotics you take. "Most folks are familiar with the lactobaccili organisms that are active in yogurt and saurkruat, but many of the strains that appear to be the most beneficial are what are called "homeostatic soil organisms." (HSO's) These critters literally, live in the dirt."
Depending on your ailment or complaint, different formulations of probiotics might work better for your body. Dr. Kahn suggests that if you aren't sure where to start, a broad spectrum probiotic will work just as well. It's also pretty difficult to overdose, Kahn says, so as long as you're not taking 1 trillion CFUs on a daily basis you can experiment with a number that works for you. Want something a little more targeted? You can choose a probiotic based on the strains that are listed on the back of the bottle. Read on to determine which strain best suits your needs.
Lactobacillus acidophilus is one of the most popular strains of bacteria found in probiotics. Good for ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, canker sores, eczema, lactose intolerance, and the prevention of respiratory infections, acidophilus can also help rebuild the gut flora after a round of antibiotic treatments. This bacteria is often also found in kimchi, kefir, and miso.
B. bifidum bacteria is predominately used for digestive issues like IBS and ulcerative colitis, but it's also known for supporting the beneficial mouth bacteria that prevents cavities and tooth decay.
Saccharomyces boulardii is recommended by Dr. Kahn for those with heart issues, because it's been proven to beneficially affect heart function, and Doubler suggests trying this strain to help with sugar cravings. It's also good for treating acne and helping restore the gut in those that suffer from diarrhea, either chronically or after contracting a bug. Other than in a supplement, you'll find strains of this bacteria in kombucha tea and kefir.
Bacillus coagulans is particularly beneficial for helping the body to digest lactose (rejoice, lactose-intolerant friends!) and assisting the body's absorption of calcium, phosphorus, and iron. It's also an excellent strain to help maintain vaginal health. A study of women who took B. coagulans daily found that 91 percent reported relief from vaginal discomfort.
B. longum is a common type of bacteria found in the digestive tract, but its production declines as we age. However, b. longum is excellent for its digestive benefits: It breaks down carbohydrates and protects cells from free radical damage, making it ideal for detoxification purposes. Want to finally see those abs again? Try supplementing with this strain to ease bloating and absorb nutrients even better.
At the end of the day, the best probiotic for you is the one that makes you feel good. Sometimes it takes a little bit of experimentation, but adding any sort of probiotic into your regimen can definitely give your body a boost.
Illustration by Foley Wu