Probiotics: Wasting Your Money? Not if you know 3 things

by: Jason Blalack (04/06/2016)

In my clinic I only give my patients probiotics from companies that rtclere 100% transparent and use the correct strains for the condition I am trying to address. Read on to learn more…

Acupuncturist Jason Blalack in Boulder, CO

I have a long time interest in gut health and how it relates to healing chronic disease. Understanding our good and bad bacteria, probiotics, and prebiotics is essential to our vitality and health. Using probiotics can lead to greater beneficial gut bacteria, which can support a wide range of health benefits. However, gut health is not as easy as buying a ‘good’ probiotic from the health food store. This article will help you learn how to choose the correct probiotic for your body / condition by explaining key issues, and how to read labels to avoid useless products. Here are three points worth understanding.

1. Strain matters! Know the difference between strain vs. species vs. genus.

Let’s examine a common probiotic name, Lactobacillus Acidophilus CL1285.

Genus: Lactobacillus
Species: Acidophilus
Strain: CL1285*

* This id is essential to choosing the correct probiotic for your condition.

To elaborate, the genus Lactobacillus has over 180 species, two of which are: L. acidophilus and L. rhamnosus. L. acidophilus has many strains, such as, DDS-1, LA-5, NCFM, CUL-21, La-14, etc. Each strain has a different effect on the body!

2. Pick the correct strain for your condition

There are at least 5600 strains1 of gut bacteria and many of them are not beneficial to our overall health. Certain strains have been shown to have specific health benefits. For example, a single strain may benefit:

  • a decreased immune system
  • high cholesterol
  • anxiety
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • chronic digestive disorders
  • allergies
  • side-effects from antibiotics
  • obesity
  • inflammation etc.

It is essential to match the probiotic strain to the condition one is trying to shift.

For example, one strain will benefit diarrhea, while another will benefit constipation. Each strain has unique effects on the body. Some are positive, negative, or unclear from research.

Over the last years I have complied a long list of researched strains and their corresponding conditions that they benefit. Here is a abbreviated version for your education. If you are just considering a probiotic for general health, please see my follow-up article on improving your overall gut health (coming soon).

Bifidobacterium lactis HN019
  • Intestinal Dysbiosis
  • Intestinal Transit Time – Slow
  • Constipation
  • Immune enhancement- especially in elderly
Lactobacillus acidophilus LA-5
  • Immune enhancement (such as increased cytokine, phagocytic activity and antibody production), as well as phagocytosis of Salmonella
  • Inhibit growth of breast cancer cells, and positive effects on chemotherapy patients
  • Lipid metabolism
Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG
  • Immune enhancement
  • Infectious diarrhea in children
  • Primary prevention of atopic dermatitis
Bifidobacterium lactis BB-12
  • Immune enhancement
  • Diarrhea in children
  • Probiotics for Standard Triple Helicobacter pylori Eradication
Bifidobacterium infantis 35624
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Lactobacillus casei DN114-001
  • Immune enhancement
Bifidobacterium longum BB536
  • Allergy symptoms
  • Intestinal micro-ecology
Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM
  • Symptoms of lactose intolerance
  • Reduced small-bowel bacterial overgrowth
  • Fever, cough and runny nose
  • Inflammation
  • Pediatric diarrhea
Bifidobacterium animalis DN173-010
  • Normalizes intestinal transit time
Lactobacillus plantarum 299V
  • IBS
  • Post-surgical gut nutrition
Lactobacillus casei Shirota YIT9029
  • Superficial bladder-cancer recurrence,
  • Intestinal microbiota
  • Immune enhancement
Lactobacillus salivarius UCC118
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
Lactobacillus johnsonii La1 (Lj1)
  • Immune function
  • Helicobacter pylori eradication
Saccharomyces cerevisiae boulardii (Biocodex strain)
  • Antibiotic-associated diarrhea
  • Clostridium difficile infections
  • Amebiasis
  • Candidiasis
  • Helicobacter pylori
  • Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth
Streptococcus thermophilus (most strains)
  • Symptoms of lactose intolerance

3.  Understand Marketing Strategies: Seeing Through the Deception

Let’s see how supplement companies manipulate data for their benefit. Notice this marketing statement:

Bait and Switch

In a study held at the University of Turku in Finland, researchers studied the effects L. rhamnosus on 132 infants with eczema.”2

The associated product being sold contains L. rhamnosus Lr-32. However, the original research on eczema used L. rhamnosus GG and HN001. I have not found evidence that Lr-32 benefits eczema and according the Probiotic Advisory3, it has no reliable research data. This deceptive tactic of marketing a researched species, without naming the strain, nor using the correct strain in their product  is rampant. Don’t be fooled many ‘trusted’ supplement companies do this. Essentially, you get what you pay for; probiotic strains that have strong positive research cost more. Higher-end companies only use positively tested strains.

Non-Specific Strains
intensive-probiotic-blend-label
Often instead of buying specific strains, companies will buy a single species, such as a conglomeration of strains of L. acidophilus. This is much less expensive and contains numerous non-specific strains. Thus, we consumers do not know what is in a conglomeration of probiotic strains, some may be beneficial for your health, while others may be harmful. Notice the label on the top right. There are no specific strain IDs next to the species. Compare this to the lower label.

Also notice the term “proprietary blend” (in the upper label) and the lack of Probiotics Supplement labelspecific amounts for each probiotic. We have no idea how much of each one is contained in the blend. Often the cheaper less effective probiotics will dominate.

In my clinic I only give my patients probiotics from companies that are 100% transparent and use the correct strains for the condition I am trying to address. For example, the lower label is from the company Xymogen. They are top notch.

Three Bonus Points

1. The greater number of active strains (e.g. 70 billion or 15 billion) are NOT better for your health.

Often the research dictates how much is needed to treat a specific condition. I follow these guidelines. Too many can cause problems and too little can not be effective.  Furthermore, we have to trust that what a company says is true. Do I really believe there are 225 billion active strains as mentioned in the above label?

2. The greater number of different kinds of probiotics (L. rhamnosus & L. Acidophilus) are NOT better for your health.

Probiotic Label many speciesThere is a trend to put 10 or even 15 different probiotics together, suggesting more is better.  Again, I like to diagnose a specific need for that patient and find the specific strains for them, instead of using a mysterious grab bag. See picture to the right.

3.  Are they alive?

We might assume that when we take the probiotic that we are getting what the label says, e.g. 15 billion active strains. This is definitely not true. There is no regulation on health supplements. Therefore, finding a trustable company is imperative. I choose companies who third-party test. For example, when trusted companies say there are e.g. 15 billion active (live) strains, this number is calculated after months of shelf life. Not when the strain is coming out of the factory. Companies also blatantly lie, which unfortunately is more common than one might think.

Taking random probiotics is not very useful. Even using probiotics marketed for general health is often not the best strategy. I will explain more in my followup article, improving your overall gut health. For now, it is important to understand that picking the specific strain(s) / probiotic for a specific condition is intelligent. If you are trying to treat anxiety, you are going to need a different probiotic than you will need to treat eczema, or to boost your immune system, or for gastrointestinal disorders. According to this level of discernment, we see that the vast number of probiotics on the market are not worth buying.

Thank you for reading and I would love to hear your comments or questions.

References:

1. https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2008/11/gut-check-reveals-vast-multicultural-community-of-bugs-in-bowels-stanford-scientists-say.html

2. http://www.naturecity.com/lp/truelife/truelife.php

3. https://www.probioticadvisor.com (checked April 2016)

Open Gate Acupuncture, located in Boulder Colorado, serves patients throughout the Boulder county region including Denver, Longmont, Gunbarrel, Lafayette, & Louisville. Jason Blalack has been treating patients in Boulder for over 14 years after graduating from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. Jason is an international lecturer on Chinese medicine and has an extensive collection of Chinese medicine articles published in professional journals worldwide. He is also the author of, Qin Bo-Wei’s 56 Treatment Methods: Writing Precise Prescriptions. Jason specializes in autoimmune, digestive disorders, fertility, and emotional disorders using Chinese and functional medicine at the Open Gate Acupuncture Clinic and also via long distance & online medical consultations.

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for the piece on probiotics. I learned a great deal and I’m reminded that I have a micro biome testing kit from you that I need to use. It will tell me (and you) what is deficient. I am hoping for some indication of why I experience so much fatigue.

    Written by Karyn on
    1. Your welcome Karyn. Let’s look and see… 🙂 -Jason

      Written by Huang Qi on
  2. I purchased nucific bio x4. After i received the product i was diagnosed with breast cancer is this agood probiotec

    Written by darlene.branch@gmail.com on
    1. As far as I can see from the online label they are not using specific strains.

      Written by Huang Qi on
  3. Hi. What about California GOLD nutrition LactoBif Probiotics. Is this a good product? And what does the different bacterias work for?

    Written by Erica on
    1. Hi Erica, I am not familiar with this product but looking quickly at their label I am not really sure what they are trying to do. They are stating they are using specific strains, so that is good, but I would email them and ask specifically the intention they have by combining those like strains. I would be curious if you find anything out. -Jason

      Written by Huang Qi on
  4. i will email them, and come back to you with an answer (if I get one) 🙂

    Written by Erica on
  5. No luck on this request. Got a disappointing answer:

    “Hello and thank you for your email.

    Regretfully, we are unable to answer your question as we are restricted from providing you with this type of information. The FDA and FTC have made this perfectly clear.

    We suggest you consult with a qualified healthcare professional in order to learn more about probiotics.

    Thanks,
    Customer Support”

    So, now I feel insecure about the product I have in my refrigerator, and what I have been taking the last seven days :p

    Written by Erica on
    1. yes, I don’t blame you. This is not an answer that I would trust… -Jason

      Written by Jason Blalack on
  6. Can you give recommendations…this is too overwhelming when compounded with candida/possible hpa axis dysfunction/anxiety/ sleep/ leaky gut…ahhhhh I am looking to heal gut of possible fungal infections as well as support mood/cognition/mental clarity

    Written by katie on
    1. Hi Katie, I am sorry you are suffering with these multiple issues. Recommendations should only be made after a proper intake, unless, for example, just trying to find a simple probiotic for anxiety. I would recommend working with a qualified health profession that knows this stuff in your area, or if there is no one, I am happy to work with you long distance via skype / phone consults. -Jason

      Written by Jason Blalack on
  7. Hello. I bought Dr. Mercola probiotics and after two months of taking the 2 pills daily and eating regularly, I notice my stomach grew. I’ve never had such a large stomach in my life. I read that it may be the L. Acidophilus strain causing weight gain. I decided that L. rhamnosus bought separately without the L. Acidophilus might help but all the products I’ve found on the internet includes L. Acidophilus! 🙁

    Is there a brand of probiotics you could recommend me for weight loss? I regret taking the ones I bought because I want my stomach to be smaller or at least back to how it was! If not, how can I fix my gut bacteria so I can return back to my earlier weight prior to taking the probiotics?

    Thanks very much.

    Desperately,
    One Who Regrets

    Written by Regret on
    1. Hi Regret, I am sorry you had a bad experience with probiotics. Unfortunately you are not the first. Finding the correct strain is important. One small technical note, L. Acidophilus and L. rhamnosus are not strains, this is the genus and species. There are many strains of both of these, and they have different functions in the body. Mercola’s looks non-specific and he does not tell us what strains are actually in his complete probiotic. Therefore I would not recommend it for specific purposes like weight loss. You can try the specific strain of Lactobacillus acidophilus La-14 for weight loss or if you can find the general species of Acidophilus gasseri. Good luck and let me know how it goes. -Jason Blalack

      Written by Jason Blalack on
  8. Hi Jason,
    Is it possible to give me your opinion about Buokult advanced probiotic product? I mean generally as a probiotic used from time to time to keep posotive gut flora and women’s flora.
    Which is better womens multi probiotic by natural factors or biokult?
    Thank you in advance?

    Written by Evgeni on
    1. Buokult does not seem to tell us if they are using specific strains, so we should assume they don’t. Therefore I would not buy it. As for woman’s it depends on what you are wanting it for. -Jason

      Written by Jason Blalack on
  9. Thank you for this very informative work. I have spent countless hours reviewing peer-reviewed journals regarding possible positive correlations between some “friendly microbiota” and up-regulation of GABA receptors in the brain (via the vagus nerve). However, some studies show “promising results” using some species or others with specific strains, etc but I can’t seem to find any products available for purchase that match up with the researchers’ choice of bacteria used in their studies. (Like you said, a product may say L. Rhamnosus but after contacting the company, they other say they cannot reveal that info or the strain has not been researched…..) Do you have any product recommendations for probiotics that have anxiolytic effects or up-regulate GABA receptors (I.e with L Rhanosus JB-1 or any others?) Thanks

    Written by Kyle on
    1. Hi Kyle, you are on the right track! Many times strains have multiple names, so you must hunt this down. I have not investigated Rhamnosus JB-1. But I would look into Bifidobacterium longum R0175, Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 for anxiety. -Jason Blalack

      Written by Jason Blalack on
  10. Hello from Australia, Jason! Just came across this very interesting and informative article of yours. Do you have a more extensive list of your research into species and conditions? Also, can you please advise any recommended strains for chronic fatigue syndrome (5 yrs and counting cause by CMV virus). Lastly, do you recommend just taking a course of probiotics, just as needed, or daily? Many thanks!!

    Written by Kelly on
    1. Hello Kelly! Since you are down under, please check out Probiotic Advisor website. They have a large list there. Also CFS is complex and I do not know of any specific probiotic for, and specifically related to CMV. My guess with working with many CF cases, and once having it myself, there is a lot more going on. Hope this Helps -Jason

      Written by Jason Blalack on
  11. Hi Jason. I underwent a PTB therapy for six months and noticed that acnes started to breakout on my back and chest on the third month, eventually on my forehead, then almost all over my face. I also started experiencing stomach discomfort (bloating and rumbling). I read online that probiotics should be taken with antibiotics but I hope it’s not too late for me now; my PTB teatment has ended last April but I’m still suffering from acnes and stomach discomfort. I’m feeling depressed already… I’ve started taking L. Acidophillus from Puritan’s Pride but I’m not sure if it is the right strain for me. What probiotics do you think should I take given my current situation? I’d also appreciate if you could recommend a specific brand. Thanks.

    Written by Mary on
    1. Hi Mary, Sorry you are suffering around this. It is never too late to rebuild the gut. But with 6 months of antibiotics, without much else at the time, your gut is probably not that happy, hence the symptoms you are experiencing. There is not an easy fix at this point, because you will need to rebuild your gut based on your personal presentation. I suggest finding a qualified practitioner in your area, and if you are unable to do this, I am happy to do some skype consults with you to get you back on track. In Health, -Jason

      Written by Jason Blalack on
  12. Hi Jason,
    I was wondering if you would recommend what to purchase if I only have one condition and that is athletes foot fungus. Abut a year ago, a pharmacist pulled a bottle off the shelf and said try this. It was a brand called Rugby and says: Acidophilus extra strength with L Sporogenes on the label. The supplement label says: L Acidophilus 70 million a time time of manufacture & L Sporogeneso 50 million.
    I felt that it definitely worked. I ran out of it and bought a brand called Signature Care (the front label just said Acidophilus. The supplement facts say: proprietary probiotic 175 MG Blend providing 10 billion CFUst Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Lactobacillus salivarius, Streptococcus thermophilus.
    My athletes foot started to return and I don’t know if it was a coincidence or . ? Since I do not understand much about all of the differences, I was wondering if you would kindly tell me what I may want to try for my condition.
    Much appreciated! – Sandra

    Written by Sandra c on
    1. Sandra, I don’t won’t to sound simplistic here, but if a previous product worked, I would buy that product. Many products are suspect ojn the market, so buy what has worked. Let us know how it goes! -Jason

      Written by Jason Blalack on
  13. This is a fantastic write up that accurately reflects the literature. The main issue I have is finding those specific strains in quality products. If you were able to link to some products that contain the specific strains by themselves that would be extremely helpful!

    Written by Maximilian Kohler on
    1. There are 100s of strains, so too much work for me to post all of this. In my clinic I know what I see often and have those strains figured out and when something new comes along I do the research to find the best products. You can do yourself for the conditions you might have.

      Written by Jason Blalack on
      1. Oh, I only meant for the 15 strains you listed here 🙂
        Or perhaps just the primary products you use in your practice. Some of them are easy like Lactobacillus GG, but others are harder.

        Written by Maximilian Kohler on
        1. The brands I use are generally only professional brands with transparency and testing, and most can’t be purchased by the public. Thus researching the public brands and trying to vet them is too much work for me. Because many non-professional brands are suspect due to lack of regulation and lack of verification testing. Sorry I could not be of more help. I suggest you find a professional with experience that can help guide you for your specific condition. Good luck… -Jason

          Written by Jason Blalack on
  14. Hi. Thank you for your great article. My beta-glucuronidase elves are high >6000 u/g. Can you please recommend which lactobacillus strain I should be taking. I have been given rhamnosus by my doctor but read it should be acidophilus and bifodo. Can you please suggest? I live in Australia but can buy online. Thank you so much.

    Written by Melissa Brown on
    1. I suggest you work with a qualified health care practitioner that takes into consideration your whole condition. You need to find the right probiotic for you. -Jason

      Written by Jason Blalack on

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