What to look for when choosing probiotic supplements

Quantity Counts After All


The first thing to look for on the label of your next probiotic is the CFU count. CFUs are colony-forming units and, theoretically, the more the better. The accepted view is that overwhelming any bad bacteria in the gut with a proliferation of good bacteria will reset the delicate intestinal flora balance in the digestive tract, and thus start the healing work your body needs to get back on track. Typically, an effective probiotic will include between 3 billion and 50 billion CFUs.


The second number to look for is the number of strains contained in each probiotic. Again, more is generally accepted to be better. But it’s also key that to buy the right strains for what ails you. More on that in just a moment.

What’s on the Outside Counts, Too

Reading labels is always important, and never more so than when choosing a probiotic. Probiotics are the body’s first line of defence against almost every lifestyle and immune disorder facing modern man, so it’s really important to get it right if you possibly can.


Starting inside the container, consider whether the probiotics are in caplet, tablet, capsule, or gel form. Liquid probiotic preparations are becoming more and more popular, too. These make a lot of sense as the living organisms have a live environment to support their growth and proliferation.

Make sure the label clearly states that whatever delivery system is used - whether capsule, caplet, tablet, gel tab or liquid - it is resistant to stomach acid and bile. Probiotics are highly sensitive microorganisms and the harsh environment within the length of the intestinal tract can do a lot of damage before they reach the site of action, where they need to do their work. You want to be sure that as many probiotics as possible reach their destination, so their carrier packaging is important.

Hot or Cold?

Taking a step away from the product itself, the jar it comes in is a key part of the process, too. Do you remember the days when probiotics needed to be stored in the fridge? The problem with those kinds of microorganisms is that there’s simply no way to guarantee the cold chain for the life of the product. Anything from Eskom’s escapades to simple carelessness along the way could mean that these sensitive flora are exposed to heat along the way, and that many of the CFUs die before they reach the shop shelves.

To avoid this calamity, always look for probiotics that need to be stored at room temperature - a far more achievable goal. Even so, your probiotics should come in an opaque container, or dark glass. Foil blister packs work too, though some commentators have concerns about the potential for probiotics to leach metals from foil and similar products. The main thing is to keep the probiotics away from direct sunlight and high temperatures.

Read the Label

The key factors to look for on the label are:

Shelf-life and expiry date - how long should the product last from packaging date, and how long has it been since then? You want assurance that the probiotics will be viable as long as you’re using them, and not inert halfway through the course.

Guarantees - both potency and money back. Firstly, how many CFUs is the manufacturer willing to guarantee will survive until the expiry date. If you’re paying for 50 billion CFUs, that’s how many you should be getting when you take your probiotic supplements - no less.

Prebiotics - as we explained last week, probiotics are living organisms, and they need food to stay alive. Prebiotics are that food, so read the label of your probiotic supplement carefully to ensure that they come with prebiotics to sustain the gut flora you’re ingesting.

What’s NOT Inside Counts

For many of us, gut flora imbalance is the cause of a range of health problems, including any number of food allergies and intolerances. So it makes sense that the probiotics you buy should be free of the most common allergens, such as gluten, dairy, soy. Ideally, probiotics should also be free of any genetically modified material.

The Right Strains for What Ails You

Like the best cowboy movies from our youth, the more good guys you’ve got, the more likely they are to beat the baddies. This applies to gut flora, too. As we’ve noted already: more is better when you’re supplementing with probiotics.

However, the truth is that no one knows exactly how many CFUs or strains anyone needs. Not least because every human body is very different, and so are its needs. Having said that, we do have some idea of which strains are most effective in healing (or at least helping) which health issues.

DailyBurn has a useful article outlining which strains sort out what problems. The article explains:

If you’re traveling abroad …

Don’t let Montezuma’s revenge get the best of you or your vacation. Taking Saccharomyces boulardii weeks before your trip may help prevent traveler’s diarrhea, which usually comes from ingesting food or water that’s been contaminated with bacteria.

If you’re lactose intolerant …

Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Streptococcus thermophilus produce the enzyme lactase that helps the gut digest and absorb lactose.

If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or gastrointestinal distress …

Bifidobacterium infantis 35624, Lactobacillus plantarum 299V or Bifidobacterium bifidum MIMBb75 have been shown to help regulate bowel movements and relieve bloating, pain and gas. More research is needed to determine which other probiotics might help treat IBS.

“Bacteria in the belly love fiber,” says Sockolow. “They break it down, leaving behind nourishing acids in the process, so it’s a win-win.”

If you’re taking antibiotics …

These drugs wipe out the bacteria in your body — the good with the bad — leaving you susceptible to diarrhea or infections. Taking a probiotic can help prevent this. Both Dr. Sockolow and Challa recommend taking Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and/orSaccharomyces boulardii six hours after each dose of antibiotics. Increase the dose to 10 billion CFUs per day and continue for one to two weeks after you stop taking the antibiotic.

If you have eczema …

Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 and Lactobacillus fermentum VRI-003 PCC have been shown to help treat those itchy, scaly skin rashes — especially in children.

If you have a cold …

Some research suggests that Bifidobacterium animalis lactis Bi-07 and Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM can help reduce the duration and severity of the common cold and flu by enhancing the body’s production of antibodies.

If you have a vaginal infection …

Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14 have been shown to help prevent and clear up bacterial vaginosis and urinary tract infections in some individuals. Researchers point to Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14 and Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 as the most effective stains to protect against yeast infections as they’re especially adept at colonizing the vaginal environment and fighting off unwelcome bacteria and fungi.

If you have bad breath, gingivitis or periodontitis …

A probiotic lozenge or mouthwash might be your best bet. Lactobacillus reuteri LR-1 or LR-2 promote oral health by binding to teeth and gums, preventing plaque formation in the mouth. Research has demonstrated the ability of Weissella cibaria to freshen breath by inhibiting the production of sulfur compounds in the mouth.

Of course, it’s always better to get your remedies from a natural source if you possibly can. Natural sources of probiotics may be an acquired taste, but they offer the best value in terms of the lifespan of the organisms, the number of strains and CFUs, and their potency. They are also usually your safest option.

Natural sources of probiotics include sauerkraut, yoghurt, and kefir. These can be bought in health shops, whole foods markets, farmers’ markets, and from reputable grocers.

Next week we’ll show you how to make your own kefir - and why you should.

Dr Alain Sanua is a homeopath based in Johannesburg. He works with patients to discover the root cause of their health challenges - not just a symptomatic mask. Over many years of caring for patients with a wide range of challenges, he has come to see the value of sound gut health as the starting point for overall health. Call Dr Alain Sanua on on 011 463 1614 or email him on and get the help you need.


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