Are probiotic supplements worth the money? Gut health expert weighs in

In recent years, there have been many claims made about gut health — especially on social media platforms like TikTok.

If you take even just a few minutes to scroll through the GutTok hashtag on the app, you’ll see dozens and dozens of videos discussing the health issues a bad gut can cause like increased acne and inflammation, and even more of them touting the benefits of paying special attention to, and healing, your gut like a strong immune system and clear skin.

There are also many gut health products on the market including supplements with prices that range from $27 to $50 a month and plenty of home recipes for ginger drinks meant to feed your gut the probiotics it needs to thrive.

But what are probiotics anyway?

Probiotics are “beneficial bacteria that keep your gut microbiome healthy,” according to Daryl Gioffre, a certified nutritionist and gut health expert.

“They strengthen your gut, which is so important, they help with digestion, and I think one of the biggest things they do is they help fight off dangerous pathogens that cause inflammation,” Gioffre tells CNBC Make It.

Studies show that probiotics produce substances that activate the immune system and “prevent pathogens from taking hold and creating major disease,” according to Harvard Health Publishing. Probiotics may also lower the number of colds you have in a year, the health hub notes.

While probiotics can be found in several foods, Gioffre believes that “supplementation of probiotics has become necessary” because we aren’t getting as many probiotics through our diets as our ancestors have in the past.

Here are the most important facts you should know about probiotics and how to get more of them in your system.

3 ways to get more probiotics for a healthier gut

1. Eat foods high in probiotics

“I think it’s important that people get [probiotics] from not just a supplement, but also a food based source,” Gioffre says. “I always say you can’t supplement your way out of a bad diet.”

Fermented foods are rich in probiotics. Here are a few that Gioffre encourages you to eat often:

  • Sauerkraut
  • Pickles
  • Kimchi
  • Pickled vegetables like pickled beets, carrots and radishes
  • Organic apples
  • Natto, a fermented soybean
  • Miso
  • Olives
  • Apple cider vinegar

Harvard Health Publishing also recommends some dairy products like yogurt, especially Greek yogurt, and kefir.

2. Consider taking probiotic supplements and switching them every now and then

When it comes to probiotic supplements, Gioffre suggests taking different types of probiotics and ideally changing the type every three months. “But if you could do it on a monthly basis, I think that’s a really powerful thing to do,” he adds.

There are two main types of probiotic supplements that Gioffre recommends: spore-based and terrain-based.

“My favorite type of probiotic is what we call a spore-based probiotic. And the reason is that the digestive system is a harsh terrain. When you take this probiotic supplement, it’s got to go down through the acid in your stomach,” he says. “So why I like a spore-based probiotic is it has a protective shell around it.”

Once a spore-based probiotic reaches your gut, its shell opens up and attaches to the gut wall to strengthen the microbiome. Another advantage of spore-based probiotics is that they “can actually get rid of some of the inflammatory bacteria that reside in the gut,” he says.

Terrain-based probiotics have their benefits as well because they typically have “a lot more of the healthy probiotics that a spore-based probiotic won’t have,” Gioffre says. The downside is that they struggle to survive while passing through the body on the way to your gut.

“So that’s why I like to switch it up.”

3. Cut back on foods that are harmful to your gut

“It’s not just about taking in a probiotic and probiotic foods, because that’s going to strengthen that gut microbiome,” Gioffre says, “But what is actually causing that microbiome to become depleted and weakened?”

To maintain a healthy gut, he says, you want to be mindful of your consumption of these foods:

  • Sugar
  • Grains
  • Refined carbohydrates
  • Alcohol
  • Artificial sweeteners

“Because if we keep taking a probiotic [and] at the same time we’re putting things in [our bodies] that’s actually depleting our good microbiome, it’s like a dog chasing its tail over and over and over,” he says.

Important things to consider when taking a probiotic

Yet, there are some important factors to consider when adding probiotic supplements to your diet like how often you should take them and possible side effects.

“Every day, we should take a probiotic,” Gioffre says. “If you’re taking the spore-based probiotic, I recommend taking two of them [during] the biggest meal of the day. And it really depends on the amount of bacteria in the probiotic for a conventional [terrain-based] strain.”

When it comes to dosage, he says taking supplements with around 30 billion CFUs daily is a good rule of thumb.

But there is currently no recommended daily intake for probiotics, according to Harvard Health Publishing. “Therefore, the general guideline is to just add as many fermented foods to your daily diet as possible,” one of its articles states.

The potential side effects of probiotics are also theoretical. One hypothesis is “if someone has an immune system weakened by illness or medication, that person could get sick from probiotics,” wrote Harvard Health Publishing.

Additionally, people who plan to purchase probiotic supplements should proceed with caution as dietary supplements aren’t closely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

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