So you’re ready to improve your gut health and purchase a probiotic supplement — that’s great news! The health benefits of probiotics are vast: Research shows these friendly microbes help prevent bowel diseases, boost your immune system, help you maintain a healthy weight, improve bloating, and even boost your mood, helping to reduce the effects of anxiety and depression.

Problem is, supermarkets, health food stores, and vitamin shops all line their shelves with seemingly endless options.

It can be tough to know which probiotic to buy, and we ultimately recommend you speak with a functional medicine practitioner, dietitian, or other health professional who can guide you in making the right decision. If you’re feeling overwhelmed about choosing a probiotic, ask your doctor these six questions.

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What Ingredients Should I Look for in a Probiotic?

Your gut is diverse (100 trillion little helpers live in there!), so your probiotic should be too. Choose a probiotic supplement that contains multiple strains of bacteria, which is often listed as a proprietary blend.

Just like there are seemingly endless bottles of probiotics on store shelves, there are endless species of beneficial bacteria. In supplements, you’ll most commonly find the strains Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Saccharomyces boulardii (which is actually a helpful yeast, not bacteria).

Among these strains are specific species. Favorable brands contain multiple strains and species, while inferior brands may only contain one strain, and sometimes only one species.

Don’t stop there, though. Read other ingredients on the label, too. Look out for binders, fillers, and allergens that might cause a reaction like gas or bloating.

How Can I Tell if a Probiotic is High Quality?

To be a true probiotic, a product must contain live and active bacterial cultures. A good brand will indicate this on its packaging. As a rule of thumb, go for a brand with at least one billion colony-forming units (CFUs), the measure used to express a probiotic supplement’s potency.

Additionally, look for a product that’s been tested for whatever you want to address, whether that’s general wellbeing, a digestive disorder, or a specific symptom. We love a bargain just as much as the next guy, but probiotic supplements are one area where you shouldn’t skimp.

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Do I Need to Refrigerate My Probiotics?

Not all probiotics require refrigeration, but be sure to check this when you are choosing a supplement. Many bacteria are sensitive to heat and moisture. Heat can kill these microorganisms, and moisture can activate them within the pills, where they often die due to lack of nutrients and a proper environment.

Probiotics with freeze-dried organisms (which includes most of the supplements you’ll find at supermarkets and vitamin shops) generally don’t need to be refrigerated. However, it’s still best to look for a product that uses moisture-resistant packaging.

If you purchase a probiotic with a label that suggests or requires refrigeration, be sure your retailer has kept it refrigerated. If you order the product by mail, be sure it’s shipped with refrigeration to minimize exposure to heat and humidity.

What Dose of Probiotics Should I Take?

Billions is best: Millions may sound like a lot, but that’s not the case with probiotics. Remember, you have trillions of bacteria living in your gut. A typical probiotic dose ranges from 5 to 100 billion CFUs.

The more imbalanced your microbiome is, the more positive changes you will need to make to restore balance. This doesn’t mean you should just start popping probiotic pills all day — instead, start with a smaller dose and increase as tolerated. Signs your probiotic is working include mild digestive symptoms and changes in your stool.

Do Probiotics Expire?

Probiotics do expire, and a good brand will label the expiration date. After the expiration date, the potency of that product can no longer be guaranteed. Make sure to buy one that won’t expire before you finish the bottle.

How Do I Choose the Best Probiotic?

The word “probiotics” is derived from the Latin terms “pro” (for) and “biota” (life) — for life. Quality truly matters when it comes to probiotics.

Ultimately, the best predictor of whether a probiotic is whether the company is using strains that have been tested in clinical trials, and it’s best if the company uses a dose similar to or the same as the studied dose.

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