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How to Choose and Use a Probiotic Supplement

January 9th, 2009

Probiotic bacteria occur in most yogurt, and that's good......

Sugar gliders know the truth: friendly bacteria occur in most yogurt, and that's good......

By resupplying your body with “friendly” bacteria, Probiotics can be incredibly useful supplements to both keep you healthy and help you pull through a wide range of health problems.  Probiotic supplements have been around for a long time, but recent high-profile ad campaigns for probiotics in yogurt as well as food poisoning outbreaks have really taken them prime time and renewed interest in these bacterial supplements. But although probiotic supplements come in capsules and tablets just like vitamins, there are big differences between the two, so we’ve put together a guide for buying, storing and using your probiotic supplements for the best possible results.

Unlike vitamins, minerals, herbs and other types of supplements probiotic supplements contain live  (but dormant and inactive) bacterial organisms.  So you’ve got to regard them differently than inert vitamins.

Q: What’s in a probiotic supplement?

A: Dormant friendly bacteria and whatever materials (varies by brand) are necessary to keep those bacteria stable and viable until you ingest them.

Q: Where do the bacteria come from?

A: The bacteria are grown (or “cultured”) on various food sources (probiotic bacteria in yogurt are introduced into yogurt cultures as part of yogurt manufacture and/or added after manufacture). At a certain point, the bacteria are separated out from their food medium and dried to remove water.  This, along with cooling them, puts the bacteria into a state of dormancy, of minimal activity, in which they can exist for a long time (but not indefinitely).  So to help protect and prolong shelf-life, probiotics are almost always stored in a refrigerated environment.


....but there's usually a ton of sugar, also. So probiotic supplements are a much better way to restore these healthy bacteria.

Q: What kind of bacteria?

A: There are many species of friendly bacteria. Probiotics can include a single species or multiple species of bacteria,  these vary by brand and product. The best known species are the acidophilus family, which is most important in the small intestine, and the bifidus family, which predominates in the colon or large intestine.  But there are other important species, too. So one of the first things to consider is, do you want a single-species formula, a dual species formula, or a more complex multi-species formulas? If in doubt go for the multi-species formulas.

Here’s an example of a single-species supplement, acidophilus.  Why would you use this type? You might want to use these if you’ve used them in the past and gotten good results, if your doctor has recommended this type, or you may have other reasons.

Here’s an example of a dual-species probiotic, acidophilus-bifidus. Why use this type? Again, if you’ve used them in the past and gotten good results, if your doctor has recommended this type, or you may have other reasons. This is a very popular choice since it’s a good compromise between the multi and single species formulas.

Here’s an example of a multi-species probiotic. This is a good choice for everyone. Each species plays a distinct and unique role in supporting intestinal and immune health, so more species is better than fewer species, all other things being equal.

Once you’ve got a handle on which type of product you want to use, you’ll usually find at least a few brands that offer probiotics of that type.

Q: How do you choose a brand?

A: First, eliminate all the but the best-known and highest-profile brands.  The brands matter because, from a manufacturer’s standpoint, a probiotic is an easy and cheap product to make if all they’re concerned with is bragging about billions and billions of organisms per capsule on the label.  That’s usually enough to sell bottles to unaware customers.

But if  those bacteria are to remain viable, and if they are to have biological activity for the end user, even after long periods of shipment and storage, in that case a probiotic is a very difficult supplement to manufacture well.  All sorts of expensive, specialized equipment and materials are used.  So you definitely want to stick with a national brand, a brand that specializes in supplements, and with few exceptions, a brand that’s only sold in health food stores or reputable online retailers like AllStarHealth.com  The best supplement brands limit the retail partnerships to stores like these.  Avoid drugstore and supermarket brands, or probiotics from brands that seem focused on other market niches like sports nutrition, greens or herbs.

Some popular probiotic supplements

Some popular probiotic supplements

Once you’ve zeroed in a product and a few brands, you may still have a couple of choices.  Choose the ‘strongest’ one by comparing strengths of competing products by looking at the number of organisms per capsule or serving, usually expressed in terms of billions of organisms.  Generally, the higher the better.

Look for a product with an enteric-coat. This ensures that the bacteria won’t be exposed to harsh stomach acids which would otherwise  greatly reduce their viability.

At this point you should be ready to order or buy your product. Keep in mind that probiotics are temperature-sensitive. They thrive at internal body temperature, which is quite warm at nearly 100 degrees. At temperatures below that, in the absence of moisture and a food substrate, bacteria enter a state of dormancy, almost like hibernation, which they can survive for a very long time. When bacteria are warmed and approach body temperature, they will become more active, but in the absence of food and moisture, they won’t survive long. So the moral of the story isn’t so much that you have to keep probiotics cold, but you do have to protect them from heat.

That can present a problem when ordering online, since although most retailers refrigerate their probiotic inventory, none of the common shippers use temperature controlled vehicles for parcels. None of them are able to tell  you anything about the temperatures to which your product was exposed, either.

So, in the first place, order from a retailer who has a high-profile and does high-volume such as AllStarHealth.com. This helps ensure that your retailer’s probiotic inventory is turning over quickly and not sitting around.

Then, place your order early on a Monday or Tuesday to ensure that it ships the same day. Never order late in the week because you don’t want your product lingering in a UPS warehouse over the weekend.

Third, consider spending the extra money for expedited shipping to further decrease transit time.

Have your shipment sent somewhere where you know you (or someone you designate) won’t miss the deliveryman, whether that’s work, home, a neighbor or relative’s house.

When you receive your shipment, immediately place it in the fridge and begin using it the same day. These are not products you can or should use on a casual basis, and just let them sit around for weeks while you take a dose now and then.  They won’t work if you do that. You really have to use probiotics more deliberately and intensively if you want to get the most of them. Start using them as directed on Day One, and don’t let up until the product runs out. That’s the way to get 100% out of your probiotic.

If your package is warm or hot to the touch, that’s not necessarily the kiss of death for your product inside. For one thing, manufacturers anticipate storage periods and exposure to warm temperatures that are to a certain extent unavoidable at any time of year. So they overload probiotic supplements with far more organisms than the label claims, with the understanding that there will always be ‘some’ die-off. The label claim is a guarantee of how many organisms will be viable on the expiration date. So you have a considerable margin of error that allows for some warming or uncertainty about temperature exposure.

It may seem otherwise at first glance, but buying probiotics from a brick-and-mortar health food store isn’t necessarily the better alternative to a high-volume retailer like AllStarHealth.  Their product turnover is usually much lower than an online store, and they use the same shippers you do to have your products sent.  They may have a refrigerated section for probiotics on the floor, but there’s often backstock that’s not refrigerated, subject to whatever the warehouse conditions are.

Probiotics are among the very safest supplements, so there’s virtually no risk of toxicity or serious side-effects.  You should consider probiotics anytime your immune system needs help, or anytime you’re dealing with intestinal issues of any kind. Health professionals also recommend probiotics for many other things, too.

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