For decades, the word “bacteria” has seemed synonymous with “infection.” People slather themselves with antibacterial soaps and solutions in the hopes of killing these harbingers of disease and dirt. However, most bacteria are harmless. Some are even beneficial. Digestive health depends on a complex colony of millions of gut bacteria. Research has increasingly linked gut and other beneficial bacteria to several health benefits, including fewer symptoms of depression, a reduced risk of bacterial infections in the stomach, and even the prevention of systemic infections in babies. 

As the popularity of probiotics has increased, so too has the number of companies capitalizing on this trend. To benefit from probiotics and avoid wasting your money, you need to make the right decision for your health goals. Here’s how to choose among the many options.

Consider Naturally Incorporating Probiotics

You don’t necessarily have to take a probiotic supplement to load your body up with helpful bacteria. Some foods are naturally rich in probiotics. Eating a diet rich in probiotic foods ensures you get a broad range of healthy bacteria, and doing so can save you money on pricey and potentially ineffective supplements. Yogurt, including Greek yogurt, is probably the best known probiotic food. You can determine if your yogurt has probiotics by checking to see if its label says that it contains live and active cultures. That’s just scratching the surface of your options. Other foods rich in probiotics include:

  • Most cottage cheese
  • Any fermented food, including sauerkraut, kombucha, miso, and pickled foods
  • Beer and wine
  • Green olives
  • Sourdough bread
  • Aged cheeses, especially soft cheeses such as gouda, swiss, and parmesan

Know Which Bacteria is Right for You

Just as you can’t use any random antibiotic to fight an infection, you also can’t rely on any single strand of bacteria to offer any and all probiotic health benefits. Specific bacteria perform specific functions, so spend some time researching which option is best for you. A probiotic with a large number of bacterial cultures will address more health needs. However, there’s no evidence that consuming more bacteria offers more benefits. So if you have time to do some research, it’s better to get specific about your probiotic needs.

"If you're looking for a probiotic for overall health, try to find one with multiple strains (5-10 recommended). Since our gut is filled with tons of various kinds of good bacteria, it is best to try and cover more of our bases," said Maria Zamarripa, a registered dietician who runs FoodFarmacistRD.com

Bifidobacterium species, for instance, are helpful at preventing the yeast accumulation that can cause jock itch, thrush, and vaginal yeast infections. They can also support gut health and reduce the frequency of some gastrointestinal problems. Bacillus species can improve the body’s ability to absorb some nutrients, such as calcium and phosphorous. Streptococcus strains may support healthy gums and teeth and reduce the risk of throat infections.

Choose a Quality Probiotic Supplement

You may need to experiment with a few probiotics before you find one that addresses your needs. Stick with the regimen you choose for 4-6 weeks, and if you see no results, pick something else. These are some of the ways you can determine if a probiotic is a good one to try.

  • It lists the specific bacterial cultures on the label and provides details about the quantity of each culture. The more specific, the better. "A good probiotic should list the genus, species, and strain in the ingredients. Since all probiotic research is strain specific, it is extremely helpful to know which strains you are taking. The largest studied probiotics come from the Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium genera. So, it is beneficial to find a probiotic with at least one of these included, if possible," according to Zamarripa.
  • Pay attention to product delivery. Bacteria can die if they’re incorrectly stored, which makes them useless. Good products provide details about how the bacteria is stored in the pill or liquid suspension as well as information about how you should keep the product, such as in the refrigerator or only in low light.
  • A definitive expiration date. There’s no requirement within the supplement industry that probiotics have an expiration date. The presence of this information hints at a manufacturer who is committed to testing the life of the product.

Incorporate Prebiotics

Prebiotics are indigestible products that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. Because your body can’t digest them, healthy bacteria must accumulate to break down these ingredients. Some foods that contain prebiotics include:

  • Dandelion greens
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Chicory root
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Asparagus
  • Oats
  • Barley
  • Bananas
  • Apples

It’s possible to incorporate a prebiotic supplement or take a probiotic that contains prebiotics. But by actively seeking prebiotics as part of a balanced diet, you’ll get well-rounded nutrition that supports a healthy gut and a healthy body.