Do the probiotics you’re taking actually work?
Unfortunately, the positive effects of most probiotics are hard to discern.
A 2012 study by the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) found that roughly 4 million Americans were taking some form of probiotic: live microorganisms, typically bacteria, that provide health benefits. But the industry has exploded over the last decade and today is valued at over $60 billion, with estimates suggesting that it could exceed $100 billion by 2030.
We can see evidence of the growing fascination with probiotics, the gut microbiome, and gut health in the rising popularity of diagnostic tools, at-home testing kits, and an expanding focus on specialized health areas, including skin and vaginal health. Trends like TikTok’s “GutTok” further amplify this shift.
But all this interest in probiotics has also increased opportunism in the space.
The result: the probiotics market is like the Wild West—an industry with minimal regulation that is filled with misleading messaging and questionable products.
At the same time, there’s a distinct disconnect between the science of probiotics and the products being offered. Despite the significant health potential and growing public fascination, most probiotic products, especially in the U.S., are not grounded in the robust science they deserve (or in many cases, claim).
So, with hundreds of ingestible probiotics on the market—from drinks and foods to pills and powders—how do you separate good quality from good marketing?
In today’s blog, I’ll bust some of the popular myths about probiotics, offer several tips to help you choose the best probiotic, discuss the need for more scientific rigor in the industry, and share details about the probiotic I use: Seed’s DS-01® Daily Synbiotic, which I am personally invested in and believe is the best probiotic available.
Let’s dive in…
Probiotic Mythbusting: Not All Probiotics are Created Equal
First, what exactly are probiotics?
Essentially, probiotics are live microorganisms that provide a health benefit. Technically, this means that a strain (not just a species) of bacteria must demonstrate efficacy in a human clinical study to be scientifically viable as a “probiotic.” But it’s important to note that not all probiotics are created equal. Because the FDA classifies probiotics as a dietary supplement (a regulated yet very under-enforced category), the industry can slap a “probiotic” label on pretty much anything, whether it meets the scientific definition or not.
There are at least 3 myths that come up in popular discussions about probiotics that I’d like to debunk:
Myth #1 – Probiotics = Fermented Foods: One of the biggest misconceptions about probiotics today is that specific strains can be obtained in the appropriate dosages from fermented foods and beverages like yogurt, kombucha, and kimchi. While it's certainly possible for some to meet the scientific criteria for a “probiotic,” most fall short. Just because a product contains live microorganisms doesn’t mean that it satisfies the definition of what a probiotic is.
And unlike the probiotics that have been clinically studied (e.g., DS-01® Daily Synbiotic), most “probiotic” foods or beverages do not disclose which specific strains are used and have not been subjected to controlled studies in humans to demonstrate a probiotic benefit.
Myth #2 – Probiotics Have to Colonize to Work: There’s a common misconception that probiotics must “colonize” or alter the composition of your microbiome to “work.” This is not true. In fact, outside of specific cases like fecal transplants, there is little evidence that probiotics “colonize,” or that they need to. Compared to the tens of trillions of microbes already rooted in your gastrointestinal tract, most probiotics don’t contain enough new bacteria to make a significant difference in the composition of your microbiota.
What scientists do know is that, as transient microbes, probiotics travel through your GI tract, interacting with your immune cells, dendritic cells, gut cells, dietary nutrients, and existing bacteria to, directly and indirectly, deliver benefits.
Myth #3 – All Probiotics Are Created Equal: The benefits of probiotics are determined by the specific strains they include and what those strains were clinically-validated to do. Equally important is the dosage, as probiotics must be administered in amounts proven through studies to confer health benefits. If the probiotic is not present in the effective dose, it may not yield the expected benefit. Genomic diversity in the formulation also plays a crucial role, offering a broader spectrum of benefits and better adaptation to individual gut environments. And finally, while probiotics are most commonly associated with “gut health,” research shows we can now look to specific probiotic strains for benefits beyond digestion.
Additionally, in order to optimize for the intended benefits of a specific probiotic, the microbes in your probiotic must be alive at the time you consume them––meaning they must survive through processing, shipping, and the time they sit in their packaging before they are taken by you. They also need to survive the digestive journey, including stomach acid, digestion enzymes, and bile salts to make it to the colon (where they matter most).
The Science of Probiotics Demands a New Standard
As the field of probiotics has advanced, so has our understanding of the critical role that the microbiome plays in immune and systemic health. And how our modern living practices and daily choices—such as more time spent indoors (and away from natural environments), poor diet, excessive sugar, processed foods, lack of fiber, antibiotic overuse, use of NSAIDs, tobacco smoke, and other environmental factors—can disrupt the microbiome.
We can now look to probiotics for benefits beyond digestion, especially the specific strains studied to support gut-immune function, gut barrier integrity, and even skin and heart health.
Zooming in on a microbial level, specific probiotic strains that have been studied for particular outcomes can travel through your colon, interacting with your immune cells, gut cells, dietary nutrients, and existing bacteria to, directly and indirectly, deliver benefits.
- Some strains enhance the gene expressions involved in tight junction signaling, which help protect against intestinal permeability (this means a tight gut barrier).
- Others produce metabolites like short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which have substantial evidence demonstrating their benefits for both metabolic and immune health.
- And yet others trigger neurotransmitters that stimulate muscle contractions for healthy motility (translation: easy, regular bowel movements).
With all these considerations in mind, navigating the world of probiotics can feel like an impossible feat.
Here are some tips to help…
What To Look for in a Probiotic
Here are 5 criteria to help you choose an effective probiotic:
#1 – Meets the scientific definition. As mentioned above, just because something contains live microorganisms, that doesn’t mean it’s a probiotic, scientifically. The following elements support this.
#2 – Research-derived dosage. Don’t be fooled by products just because they have many strains or high CFU counts (with labels in the billions). More bacteria doesn't always mean more effective.
#3 – Strain-level specificity. For any probiotic product, it’s important to look at what strains (not just species) are present in the product. When it comes to probiotics, benefits are clinically assessed on the strain level.
#4 – Scientific evidence behind the claimed benefits. It’s important to know that what you’re taking has been studied for both efficacy and safety in the intended population.
#5 – Guarantees survivability and stability throughout manufacturing, distribution, and digestion. In other words, the product should survive the potential heat and humidity it may encounter during shipping and storage, as well as the trip through your gastrointestinal tract.
Why I Personally Use Seed’s Probiotic + Prebiotic
Seed Health is a microbiome science company, not a supplement company.
The company, which I’m personally invested in through my venture fund BOLD Capital and that is an integral part of my personal health optimization, is doing incredible work in various fields of microbiome research. They are most known for their innovations and clinical research in probiotics, especially their DS-01® Daily Synbiotic.
Developed from a deep understanding of the complex interactions within the microbiome, DS-01® confers benefits in and beyond the gut. This novel synbiotic preserves ecosystem function, fortifies the gut barrier, promotes healthy regularity, reinforces an optimal gut-skin axis, promotes cardiovascular health, and supports healthy immunological responses in the GI tract.
The specific prebiotic is sourced from the Indian pomegranate and has been clinically validated to support healthy aging, including the reduction of aging markers like the appearance of wrinkles. Unlike most fiber-based prebiotics, Seed’s is non-fermenting which makes it gentler on the stomach and tolerable for a FODMAP diet. DS-01®’s prebiotic is biotransformed into beneficial compounds like urolithins, which play an important role in cellular health and healthy aging.
Many “probiotics” don’t include research-backed doses, are not transparent about which strains they’ve used, and most importantly, don’t survive the trip to the shelf, let alone through digestion. Seed has solved for survivability with ViaCap®, their patented capsule-in-capsule delivery technology, which nests the inner probiotic capsule inside an outer prebiotic capsule. This protects the live cultures from stomach acid, digestion enzymes, and bile salts for precision release to the colon (where probiotics make their impact). Seed’s ViaCap® technology also ensures DS-01® is stable outside the body, which means there’s no refrigeration required and it’s convenient for travel. Since I travel frequently throughout the year, this means I can continue my DS-01® routine daily, no matter where I am.
Every day, in addition to my diet and other lifestyle choices to improve my health, I take 2 capsules of Seed’s DS-01®: a broad spectrum 2-in-1 probiotic and prebiotic formulated with 24 genetically distinct clinically- and scientifically-studied probiotic strains and a polyphenol-based prebiotic.
The reason I believe Seed’s DS-01® is the best probiotic on the market is the scientific rigor that drives the company’s work.
Known for their renowned scientists in the field of microbiome and probiotics (and a Scientific Board that includes well-known scientists like Harvard’s George Church, PhD), Seed’s ongoing research has set them apart from others. DS-01® strains have been clinically studied in over 20 clinical and mechanistic studies. Two clinical trials evaluating the DS-01® formulation have recently been completed: one assessing the impact of DS-01® on patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) under Investigational New Drug authorization from the FDA; and another evaluating the effects of DS-01® on the gut microbiota during and after antibiotic usage (under Health Canada authorization).
This new data is anticipated to be published in high-impact scientific journals in the coming months, and the company expects that DS-01® will undergo 2 - 3 more clinical trials in the coming year.
In addition to Seed’s rigorous science, I’m also impressed with their dedication to setting a new standard in safety and testing. Testing is an area where a lot of other companies find loopholes, but Seed goes above and beyond. Their approach includes:
- Extensive allergen panels (as defined by EFSA) including gluten, egg, fish, soy, milk, peanut, almond, hazelnut, walnut, cashew, pecan, Brazil nut, pistachio, macadamia, celery, mustard, sesame, sulfites, lupin, and shellfish (crustaceans, mollusks).
- Testing for 500 different pesticides (including glyphosate).
- Survivability testing to ensure the optimal conditions for our probiotics to survive the trip through the GI tract.
- Heat and humidity testing to mimic the most extreme conditions DS-01® may encounter during shipping and storage.
- Whole-genome sequencing to confirm which strains are present and to ensure there are no contaminant strains.
- AFU measurement (more precise than CFU for counting live and viable cells).
Your gut microbiome and gut health are one of your MOST important, modifiable parts of your whole-body health plan.
So, what are YOU doing to optimize your gut?