Probiotics are one of the most commonly bought supplements, and it's easy to see why: The microbiome affects literally everything—even things you might not expect, like vaginal health and immunity. What's tricky is that there isn't a one-size-fits-all brand or formula for every scenario and every person.
The best probiotic cocktail for you depends on what good bacteria your body specifically needs more of. While you can go the gut-testing route for a super nitty gritty rec, you could also start by turning to your body for clues. Do you have a lot of digestive probs? Are you getting sick a lot? Have you been feeling depressed?
Thryve Inside CEO Richard Lin has devoted his professional life to learning more about the microbiome's ins and outs. His company creates personalized probiotic plans, and through his research and others', he's come to recognize some strong patterns in how different bacteria strains serve different, specific purposes.
"Often, people just look for a probiotic that [advertises] the most bacteria strains—but a lot doesn't always mean better."
"Often, people just look for a probiotic that [advertises] the most bacteria strains and CFUs, which is the amount of bacteria per serving, but a lot doesn't always mean better," he says. What's more important, he says, is learning how to look for specific strains that will benefit your body.
Because a lot of the names can look like someone forgot to take the "lorem ipusm" placeholder copy off the label, consider this your handy-dandy cheat sheet to pull up while you're shopping. Outlined here are Lin's recs for what to look for, based on what you want your probiotic to do.
Keep reading to find out exactly which bacteria strains to look for on your probiotics label.
For constipation, diarrhea, and IBS
"The first thing people need to be aware of is the difference between the species of a bacteria and strains of a bacteria," Lin says. "A species is the upper level of a specific type of bacteria." Pro tip: The species is written before the strain, which is usually indicated by a letter-number combo.
Digestive issues are the major reason so many people turn to probiotics. According to clinical trials and medical research, Lin says lactobacillus plantarum and bifidobacterium lactic fermentum are great species to keep an eye out for if GI problems are why you're reaching for a supplement.
If you have bad allergies or tend to get sick a lot, you can biohack your body by upping the count of specific bacteria strains that will help protect you from whatever bug is flying around the office in any given week: Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, lactobacillus acidophilus L-92, bifidobacterium longum BB536, and lactobacillus paracasei LP-33 are all strains Dr. Christina Tsai, PhD, Thryve Inside's head of research and development, recommends.
"How they help is by reducing the levels of antibodies—which can cause an allergic reaction or sickness—and strengthening your [disease-fighting] T-cells," Lin explains. On the species level, he says to look for bifidobacterium lactic fermentum, recommended above for digestive health. It pulls double duty, keeping your immune system strong, too.
For vaginal health
Yeast infections are caused by out-of-whack bacteria levels, so it makes sense that if you're prone to them, a probiotic can help. "Certain probiotic strains can stop the growth of pathogens by producing lactic acid to lower the pH, which may provide difficult environment for pathogens to grow," Tsai explains. "They can also produce antimicrobial substances...to kill pathogens."
The ones she that have strong scientific evidence linked to improving women's health: lactobacillus rhamnousus GR-1, lactobacillus reuteri RC-14, lactobacillus acidophilus KS400, and lactobacillus casei rhamnosus Lcr35.
For depression and anxiety
While filling your meals with mood-boosting foods can help with depression, a probiotic can help provide additional support. "There are several probiotic strains that can produce GABA—a neurotransmitter involved in regulating many physiological and psychological processes in certain brain regions—and lower the stress-induced hormone corticosterone," Tsai says. "In addition, some exert effects on the body’s stress response system and decrease stress and anxiety-like symptoms."
Her mood-regulating picks: lactobacillus plantarum PS128, lactobacillus helveticus R0052, and bifidobacterium longum R0175.
Again, the long gibberish-sounding names can be overwhelming, which is why it might be a good idea to bookmark this page and pull it up when you're doing your probiotic shopping. But Lin says it's a major positive that there are so many different formulations out there. "I think as we are getting closer to really personalized, targeted medicine, we’re going to start seeing a lot of different formulas for each person," he says.
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