Woman eating yogurt containing probiotics

7 Things You Didn’t Know About Probiotics

When you hear the words, gut bacteria, your first thought likely isn’t, Oooh! How do I get more of those? Yet, having beneficial bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract can have a positive impact on everything from our digestion to our immune health to our mood.

The more we learn about probiotics, the more we understand how important it is to cultivate a healthy microbiome, which is the eco-system of microorganisms that live in your gut. This growing body of research about beneficial, live bacteria is likely why you’re now seeing the word probiotic plastered on everything at the supermarket from yogurt to tortilla chips; the market for probiotic-infused foods is projected to reach $38 billion by next year, according to Food Business News. Unfortunately, though, snack foods and cereals fortified with probiotics are not the best way to go about supporting your gut health.

Making things even more confusing, it can be difficult to shop for probiotic supplements—there’s all of that Latin on the label…what does that even mean?

To get the true story about probiotics, we interviewed Life Extension’s Director of Education, Dr. Michael Smith, who was kind enough to set us straight about these health-affirming nutrients. Probiotics are so essential to our health, Dr. Smith said. When you support your gut health, you support your whole-body health.

Yet, he noted that there are many misunderstandings about how probiotics work—leading people to buy products that aren’t beneficial to them. Here are Dr. Smith’s surprising insights about probiotics.

1. You’re probably not getting enough probiotics from your morning yogurt

man eating yogurt with his breakfast

Who doesn’t love some cool, creamy yogurt, especially when there’s some fresh fruit and a pinch of chopped nuts or seeds mixed in? And since yogurt is a rich source of probiotics, perhaps you’re thinking you can check the done box and skip a supplement.

According to Dr. Smith, however, that’s not quite how it works. Yes, yogurt and fermented foods are a wonderful source of probiotics, but it’s important to look at the clinical studies to determine the exact amount of colony forming units (CFUs) needed to achieve the most benefit to your health, he explained.

Plus, it’s unlikely that a grocery store brand of yogurt would even come close to that amount. Many yogurts are overly processed and contain lots of sugar, which pretty much counteracts the benefits to your health of the probiotics they contained, he added. To get a potent dose of probiotics from food alone, you’d have to be willing to eat stinky tofu, or kimchi grown in the ground for over 50 years, Dr. Smith quipped. For many, the path of least resistance would be to instead choose a probiotic supplement that’s been formulated based on clinical research.

2. Not every probiotic supplement will benefit your health

woman taking a probiotic with water

Given their growing popularity, it’s easy to find probiotic supplements these days—nearly any store that sells a basic multivitamin will carry at least one or two options, and you can certainly find plenty of options online. Bargain hunters may even spot them at the dollar store—but consumer experts say that these products may not contain the ingredients listed on the bottle. And of course, celebrities sell these lines, too; there’s even a Kardashian who’s got a lot to say about probiotics—but her stardust doesn’t make the line she’s promoting more effective.

Dr. Smith agreed that probiotics are popping up all over the place, and urged consumers to be choosy when shopping for this supplement. He noted that any quality probiotic will state what strains are included in their formula, provide scientific validation for their efficacy and indicate that testing for safety has taken place. Any brand should be able to provide you with a certificate of analysis if asked, he added.

3. More isn’t necessarily better when it comes to a probiotic’s billions of CFU

Man reading a probiotic label

Just as you shouldn’t be wowed because someone famous is endorsing a probiotic, try not to get swept away by claims of how many billions of colony-forming units, or CFUs, are in a particular formula, according to Dr. Smith.

In fact, products that report an extremely large number of CFUs are engaging in pure marketing, Dr. Smith said. They are trying to jam in more, more, more, but if it’s a good, static product, you shouldn’t need more than 15 to 30 billion CFUs, he explained. What matters most is having a clinically studied number of CFUs, as researchers noted in the Journal of Chemotherapy.

4. The best probiotics don’t need to be kept in a fridge

looking in the refrigerator

We’re about to rock your world. Perhaps you’ve noticed that at the health food store, bottles of the priciest probiotics are kept in a refrigerator—or, when you’ve shopped online, you’ve noticed that some brands require being shipped in ice. The need for refrigeration is actually not an indicator that the probiotic is the best on the market, according to Dr. Smith, and that means the best probiotic that money can buy isn’t always the most expensive.

It’s a myth that quality probiotics need to be kept at cold temperatures to be effective—that’s not true at all,

he said. It’s similar to having a super-high number of CFUs, where you’re doing whatever you can to get in the most bacteria because your delivery system isn’t great. If you’re doing things the right way, which is using a process like dual-encapsulation, the clinically studied dosage of CFUs will be viable when the product is kept at room temperature.

5. Probiotics are not just for your gut health

man looking relaxed because he’s in a good mood

Because probiotics are best known for their impact on gut health, many people assume that probiotics are a supplement that you take for GI health only. But that’s not quite how it works, according to Dr. Smith.

Your gut has its own brain, and as such, influences other systems in your body, including promoting a healthy inflammatory response, he explained. Remember, your gut is connected to everything, because it’s how you get your nutrients! Dr. Smith added that specific microbial strains will have different effects on specific body systems, and can benefit your mood and overall emotional wellbeing, heart health, the liver and more.

6. You might want to take more than one probiotic

woman taking multiple supplements

Since probiotic strains may target different systems within your body, if you’re looking to optimize your health in more than one way, you can potentially benefit from more than one type of probiotic, according to Dr. Smith. It’s important to look at the research to see how each strain in a formula affects whole body health, he added.

For example, if you’re taking a probiotic with a strain scientifically validated to support digestive health, but you’re concerned about immune challenges, it’s perfectly fine to add a second, targeted probiotic to your supplement regimen. You may also find probiotic formulas that contain multiple strains that will have more than one benefit for your body.

7. Probiotics aren’t the only thing that can benefit gut health

woman holding stomach

Although we’re still not sure how we feel about probiotic tortilla chips, we likely can all agree that probiotic foods are a great way to cultivate a healthy microbiome. But, did you know they’re not the only way to support your microbiome? Prebiotics, which are non-digestible fibers, are essentially food that cultivate the probiotics in your gut.

New research is revealing interesting information about postbiotics, too. Postbiotics are materials that are secreted by probiotic bacteria and are beneficial to health. Because they are nonliving and inexpensive, they may be a good option for communities that lack the resources to keep the more delicate—and pricier—probiotics on hand.

Whatever your supplement regimen, it’s important to make sure you’re getting the right balance of health-promoting bacteria, according to Dr. Smith. You’re only as healthy as your gut is, he explained.

About the Author: Jorie Mark earned an English degree from University of Pennsylvania before getting a master's degree in creative writing from American University. She is a content and social media expert with 20 years of experience in social media, editorial content, digital marketing, events, public relations and food and lifestyle writing. She is also a published author.