Most people are aware of how important your gut health is for your overall well-being—and that the healthy bacteria (a.k.a. probiotics) that live in your digestive system play a huge role in keeping that gut health in tip-top shape.
After all, these probiotics help us digest food, destroy microorganisms that might trigger disease, and even produce vitamins. Our bodies naturally house both good and bad bacteria, but as long as the two are in balance, our immune system stays strong, which is crucial for our general health, explains Sarina Pasricha, M.D., M.S.C.R., a Harvard-trained, double-board certified gastroenterologist with the Delaware Center for Digestive Care in Newark, Delaware. In fact, probiotics have been shown to help us fight off everyday bugs, overcome irregularity in the bathroom, and manage digestive conditions.
Given their many benefits, it’s no wonder many of us have added probiotic supplements to our daily routines, even probiotic supplements for kids. The key is, benefiting from a supplement isn’t quite as simple as just remembering to take it at some point every day. Turns out, when we take our probiotic supplements actually has a pretty big impact on just how much they’re able to do for our digestive system.
Here’s what top gut health experts—and the latest science—have to say about when (and when not!) to take your probiotics.
When Not to Take Your Probiotics
“Probiotics are living organisms, [so] they need food, water, and warmth to survive and multiply,” explains David Friedman, N.D., C.C.N., author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction. “In the morning, conditions are not optimal for probiotics simply because there is not enough food or water for the bacterial strains to flourish.”
Another reason the early A.M. isn’t ideal probiotic-taking time: Your stomach is super-acidic. “In a fasted state, or when you have an empty stomach, your stomach is more acidic and has a pH around two,” explains Robert Zembroski, D.C., D.A.C.N.B., M.S., functional medicine specialist, clinical nutritionist, and author of REBUILD. It’s hard for probiotics to survive this harsh, acidic environment, so fewer make it through the stomach to the intestines, where they work their magic. “The biggest danger for probiotics is the powerful acids in the digestive system, which are meant to break down and disintegrate materials that travel through it,” says Friedman. “If enough acid overcomes the coating of a probiotic capsule, it could kill the delicate strains.”
When to Take Your Probiotics
After eating a meal, your stomach’s pH rises to about a four, which is much less acidic and easier for probiotics to survive, so it’s best to take your probiotics alongside a meal, says Friedman. “By consuming your probiotic with food, you provide a buffering system for the supplement and ensure its safe passage through the digestive tract,” he says. “Plus, aside from protection, food also provides your probiotic with the proper nourishment it needs to survive, grow, and multiply once in your gut.”
A study published in the journal Beneficial Microbes found that probiotics taken with a meal—or even within 30 minutes of eating something—survived in much higher numbers than those taken 30 minutes after a meal. You see, about a half hour after you eat, the pH of your stomach once again becomes more acidic (and hostile towards probiotics).
The study also noted that probiotics taken with food containing healthy fats had the greatest survival rates, so the authors recommend the meal you take your probiotics with contain some fat.
If you are new to probiotics and notice that you’re gassier than usual after taking them, pair your supplement with dinner so you sleep through any of the unpleasant side effects. This effect usually occurs when someone who has an overgrowth of bad bacteria takes a probiotic supplement that also contains prebiotics, non-digestible fibers that feed gut bacteria (which many probiotic supplements do). That bad bacteria can feed on the prebiotics and produce a whole lot of gas, explains Lauren Deville, N.M.D., author of The Holistic Gut Prescription. Don’t worry, though, if you stick to your supplement regimen, your gut bacteria should balance out in a few weeks and any gas issues should dissipate.