You’ve heard it time and time again: probiotics are essential to good health. Health experts—including myself—extoll the virtues of maintaining a healthy gut flora to reduce the symptoms of many different chronic diseases. It is important to get enough probiotics every day.

But, when we go out in search of a good probiotic, the options are overwhelming! There are foods that contain probiotics or there are supplements, and let’s not mention the number of different strains! Which should we take? What is the best source? Are all probiotics created equal?

Probiotic foods

You can find many beneficial foods, like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso soup, kombucha, tempeh and kimchi, in your supermarket or health food store. What these all have in common is that they are fermented foods and, as such, have active bacteria in them and are a source of probiotics.

Now, I always promote reading the label—and what you may notice on some labels are claims that a particular food has 10 million CFU per serving. While this is not false advertising, it’s not the whole story either. Essentially, what you want to look for are foods containing a minimum of 10 billion CFU per serving/dose and you want live bacteria in order best populate your intestinal tract.

What do you buy? Well, it really comes down to how the food is prepared and packaged.

The plain facts about yogurt and kefir

Dr. Oz once joked that the only way to get enough probiotics from yogurt was to fill his studio with it and eat that much per day. The fact is that most yogurts and kefirs don’t contain nearly enough probiotics to make a difference in the digestive tract.

Yogurt and kefir can contain millions or even billions of bacterial culture, but that is before the pasteurization process which is designed to kill off all bacteria, including the good stuff. Some companies add the cultures after pasteurization process. This is better, but any added sugars in the commercial stuff will kill off bacteria. Basically, if the yogurt or kefir has any flavouring (such as fruit) in it, by the time you have picked it off the shelf, most—if not all—of the probiotics are dead. Your best bet would be to make homemade plain yogurt or kefir, if you want to enjoy these dairy products.

Better options

Sauerkraut, kimchi (both made from cabbage), tempeh and kombucha are better options, since the way that they are prepared and stored does not typically kill off the good bacteria. It is, however, difficult to know if you are getting enough probiotics, since there is rarely a way to measure the number of cultures per serving?

So, while it is definitely possible to get your probiotics from the foods, for the most part, you will not get the recommended daily amount. Trying to get over 10 billion CFUs from yogurt or sauerkraut alone would require you to eat an obscene amount of each. That being said, consuming all natural fermented foods is always beneficial and should be included in your nutritional lifestyle.

Probiotic supplements

Since we are not really getting enough probiotics through our food, what about supplements?

Well, just like most things, this can be confusing as well. I strongly believe that not all supplements are created equal. There are professional grade supplements that have been created to ensure the most efficient delivery and highest absorption possible, and then there are numerous others that are created for high quantity and low cost. These ones tend to contain so many fillers that our bodies end up spending more time trying to break them down rather than actually absorbing the beneficial vitamin or mineral. Probiotics are no different. The way that they are encapsulated may or may not ensure that they survive the trip through the stomach acids.

Go professional, right?

Again, yes and no; honestly, it’s quite confusing! There are a few brands that provide the more than 10 billion CFUs per dose and ensure that you are able to use most, if not all of the bacteria, but as you read the labels you will see that one will have one or two strains and others can have multiple strains. You will see names such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Bifidobacterium lactis, Bifidobacterium longum, Streptococcus thermophilus and others in the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium families.

The more the merrier?

So, what does all of this mean and is a multi strain better than a single strain?

Our gut has hundreds of different strains of bacteria in it at any given moment, so yes, getting a multi strain will be better for you as you will be supporting more areas of the gut. At the same time, watch out for ones that have way too many strains! As you add more strains to the small capsule, you reduce the number of active bacteria of each particular one and in turn make them less effective. I would not recommend any supplements that contain more than 10 different strains.
Trust your gut feeling

Because each one of us is genetically different, some strains are going to be more beneficial for some people, while others require different strains. When you start using probiotic supplements, pay attention to how you feel. Are you noticing a reduction in gas and bloating? Are you becoming more regular? Does your gut feel better? If yes, then you have found a good supplement for you. If, after a few days or a week later, you haven’t noticed an improvement try switching to a different supplement.

Hippocrates stated, “All disease begins in the gut”, if we focus on supporting our digestive system with whole, live foods and replenishing the bacteria with quality probiotics, we can live healthier. Healthy Gut, Healthy Life!