Are Probiotic Supplements Safe?

One of the biggest problems and potential risks associated with probiotic supplements is that they can trigger an allergic reaction. They might cause mild stomach problems, especially the first few days you start taking them. They also might cause gas, diarrhea, or bloating. Those symptoms usually go away after your body gets used to them.

If you have an immune system problem or another serious health condition, you may have a greater chance of issues. Some reports have linked probiotics to serious infections and other side effects. The people most likely to have trouble are those with immune system problems, people who’ve had surgery, and others who are critically ill. Don’t take probiotics if you have any of these issues I just listed.

To decrease the risk of side effects associated with probiotic supplements you shouldn’t exceed the recommended dosage and follow the directions on the label. If you are still unsure about a particular ingredient, consult with a medical professional or registered dietician in case you have a health condition or if you’re taking other medications. Also, make sure to read the entire label thoroughly to ensure you are not allergic to some ingredient that you wouldn’t expect to be in the supplement.

Many people don’t know the correct dosages of ingredients. More isn’t always better as there are side effects associated with this and not enough renders the strain ineffective or overkill.

Knowing appropriate dosage amounts, or CFU count, is extremely important for safety and worth because a small, ineffective amount of a good strain makes for a sub-par product that’s not worth your money.

If you were to look at the probiotic section at the store, you’ll see numbers like 900 million, 5 billion, and 50 billion CFUs and everything in between. While looking for the right probiotic, these numbers can be incredibly confusing and overwhelming, especially if you have no clue what you’re looking for.

CFU stands for “colony forming units” and is used to quantify how many bacteria in probiotics are capable of dividing and forming colonies. That is the most basic scientific explanation that you get. In other words, think of CFUs as one distinct bacterium. To put these numbers in perspective for you, our body naturally has about 100 trillion bacteria floating around at any given time. This equates to about 5 pounds total of bacteria alone!

Some of the ingredients don’t do much of anything if not dosed correctly. Just because you see a higher CFU count, that must make it better right? Well the answer to this question depends on what you’re using probiotic supplements for.

Many healthy individuals who use probiotics on a daily basis to maintain digestive and immune health can get the job done with a lower CFU count supplement.  A good range for a daily probiotic is between 5-10 billion CFUs. But what about the higher CFU supplements?

The higher doses of live cells are optimal for specific ailments or for specific minor health problems that are usually diagnosed through a medical professional. When a diagnosis is made and you are now dealing with a specific ailment, a probiotic within a 15-45 billion CFUs will be a good choice. However, some specific ailments that may be helped by higher doses of CFUs include inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, allergies, eczema, and some respiratory illnesses.

If you have been diagnosed with any of these major health problems listed above, be sure to see your personal health professional first.

Anything over 45+ billion CFUs is still unclear about added benefits or possible side effects. When taking extremely high levels of probiotics, you are more susceptible to experiencing stomach pain, gas and bloating.

So a higher number doesn’t always mean it’s better for you. More than likely just a marketing scheme to make you think that more is better and worth it. You may be unnecessarily paying a higher price tag for something you may not need.

Quality Control
Have you given much thought to what’s actually in your probiotic supplement? I’m not talking about what the strains or what the label says. Sure, that’s one good way to know what you’re ingesting but how can you be positive you are getting what you paid for? More importantly, is what you’re taking free of poisonous cross-contaminants or toxic ingredients that might have accidentally leaked into the production process?

Not many people know that nearly all supplement distributors regularly contract out all or most of their product manufacturing operations, sometimes to 3rd world countries. In many instances, distributors don’t even physically touch or see the product before it is sent directly to the consumer. And this poses a huge risk to quality control.

Under a 1994 federal law, probiotic supplements are exempt from the F.D.A.’s strict approval process for supplements and prescription drugs, which requires reviews of a product’s safety and effectiveness before it goes to market.

Now don’t go into your refrigerator or cabinet and start tossing out every pill and powder you have. There is hope. Numerous companies are taking action against this. There are trusted organizations and businesses that can assure you that what’s listed on the bottle is actually in the bottle and free of anything that shouldn’t be in there.

GMP is one of those signs of assurance that the product you are consuming is exactly what is printed on the label. cGMP or GMP is short for ‘(current) good manufacturing practices’. To be labeled as GMP, regulatory agencies all throughout the world have set strict guidelines that must be followed.

These guidelines are set by 3rd party agencies that control authorization, licensing for manufacturing and sale of product. Also within these guidelines are parameters for the use of high quality ingredients that do not pose any risk to the consumer. So, if you see GMP on your product, be sure that the product is safe and accurate to its claims.

NSF is another widely used symbol. NSF stands for ‘National Sanitation Foundation’. The NSF has been around since 1944 and another key to making sure that the products you use meet strict standards for public health protection.

NSF certification is not a one-time event, but involves regular on-site inspections of manufacturing facilities and regular re-testing of products to ensure that they continue to meet the same high standards required to maintain certification over time.

Informed Choice is another certification granted by a third-party lab called HFL Sport Science. It’s a label specifically for sports supplements, focusing on steroids, growth hormones, and other substances of special concern to athletes. To get the Informed Choice sticker, a company must comply with a strict set of guidelines for raw material testing, label accuracy, and storage of the finished product.

These certifying labels aren’t perfect though, but they’re a whole lot better than nothing at all. They’re basically a shortcut: instead of you having to call the company to ask about their manufacturing standards, you can just look at the label and know that someone else already ran the test.

Unfortunately on the other hand, there are many high-quality probiotic supplements that don’t have one of these labels, so not having a label shouldn’t immediately sway your judgement. Instead of relying only on certifications, think of them as one piece of information that can help you make an overall informed choice.

Keeping probiotics stored correctly is essential. The biggest 3 dangers for the correct storage of probiotics are heat, water and air. All probiotics should be stored in the refrigerator or kept in a cool, dry environment. This is the ideal scenario regardless of what some might say.

Improper storage is one factor that can cause a loss of bacteria. Over time the number of CFUs decreases, making the probiotic less potent. Some, not all, manufacturers factor this loss in when a “Best by” date is set so it’s best to buy small batches that you know you’ll finish well before that date comes. Unfortunately, this raises the important concern of knowing the exact dose ingested. This practice of “adding more” can affect those who have a need for very specific levels.

Yes long term, a cool, dark, dry place is best but short term, you can pack your capsules or powder in your bag and take it hours or even days later. Problems start to happen when you leave them in the hot sun all day or expose them to water or humid conditions.

If you can’t refrigerate probiotics for some reason, don’t stress about it. Remember that probiotics are living bacteria and are pretty hardy and will take some time to ‘die off’. They can be left on a counter in room temperature for a few weeks without major loss of viability. However it’s not recommended to do this.

Even if a certain probiotic supplement bottle says ‘no refrigeration needed’, it really should be refrigerated since it’s known that the most common strains are extremely fragile in certain environments. Your best bet is to stick with probiotics that must be refrigerated and you know for a fact that they have been stored AND transported correctly.

Author: Tonya

Tonya is a Board Certified Holistic Health Practitioner & has over 25 years experience working in the health, fitness & wellness industry as a coach & nutrition counselor. She is also an international women's figure athlete, having represented Canada & New Zealand.

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