You don’t need to be a gut health guru to know how beneficial probiotics—in both food and supplement form—are for your digestion, immunity, skin, and then some. (Not yet buddying up with these friendly bacteria just yet? Consider this a PSA encouraging you to do so, stat.) However, if you already stock up on probiotic foods, drinks, supps, and the like, you may be wondering if you’re truly getting the most bang for your (bacterial) buck to yield their gut-supporting benefits. For instance, how does timing factor into the equation—whether morning, noon, or night, or before or after meals?
We asked Sarah Greenfield, RD, CSSD, a functional medicine dietitian who specializes in gut health, to discover once and for all if there’s an ideal time of day to eat probiotic-rich foods or take probiotic supplements.
When is it best to eat probiotics in food form?
Getting straight to the point, Greenfield says that it’s more important to include probiotic-rich foods in your diet than it is to think too much about when to chow down. “There isn’t really an ideal time as long as you are consistently eating them,” she shares. Moreover, Greenfield previously told Well+Good that it’s generally fine to eat fermented foods on an empty stomach if you so prefer—including those that contain probiotics. However, if you have existing gut imbalances or food sensitivities, it may be best to limit your intake and/or eat them alongside other foods.
With this in mind, if you need some assistance to ensure you get these mouth-puckering foods in your tummy on a regular basis, Greenfield suggests honing in on your favorite probiotic picks (amongst kimchi, fermented drinks, etc.) and figuring out when it’d be simple to include them in your daily diet. “Pick a meal that you will have an easier time integrating probiotic-rich foods and work on forming the habit,” Greenfield says. Prefer the convenience of cereal for breakfast? Add some kefir and berries to your bowl. Always pack a salad for lunch? Toss in some sauerkraut for a tasty, gut-boosting crunch.
Is there an ideal time to take probiotic supplements?
When it comes to timing your intake of probiotic supplements, things get a bit more niche. To start, Greenfield takes care to point out that recommendations vary with live-strain and soil-based probiotics. “The most optimal time to have live-strain probiotics is 20 minutes after a meal, because stomach acid levels are lower following all the work done to digest your food,” she says. When you take live-strain probiotics at this time, they have a higher survival rate, in turn enhancing their gut-boosting powers.
Greenfield understands that it can be challenging for some people to remember taking their probiotics after a meal. (One minute you’re on your lunch break, the next minute you arrive back to your desk with a barrage of Slack notifications and an influx of “highly urgent” emails. We get it.) If you fall into this camp, she says that the next best option would be to take probiotics right before bedtime, which “gives them a chance to interact with the microbiome.” As an added bonus, some people who experience digestive discomfort may find relief from taking their probiotics before hitting the hay. “If you have a more sensitive stomach, sometimes taking probiotics at nighttime can help your body integrate them better. Plus, you aren’t as aware of bloating or discomfort as you are sleeping,” Greenfield notes.
On the other hand, soil-based probiotics are fair game “to take at any time of day, with or without food, which makes them a little easier to integrate into a daily routine,” Greenfield says.
How much does timing *truly* matter when it comes to probiotic intake?
In light of Greenfield’s insights and suggestions above, research seems to be divided on this front. Take, for instance, a 2011 study investigating the survival of a probiotic capsule that contained Lactobacillus helveticus R0052, Lactobacillus rhamnosus R0011, Bifidobacterium longum R0175, and Saccharomyces cerevisiae boulardii. Researchers found that survival rates of all the bacteria were best when the capsule was ingested 30 minutes before or alongside a meal. (Moreover, survival rates were “significantly better” alongside one percent milk and oatmeal, versus H2O or apple juice.)
However, researchers behind a small 2017 study consisting of healthy volunteers assessed intake of Bifidobacterium longum BB536 and Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001; one group took the probiotic 30 minutes before breakfast and the other group 30 minutes after breakfast. Within a month, both groups demonstrated benefits in their gut microbiota, “leading to a significant reduction of potentially harmful bacteria and an increase of beneficial ones.” So, what’s the real deal?
“All things considered, I prefer consistency over timing when it comes to probiotics,” Greenfield concludes. Moreover, you may want to heed the directions on the label of your probiotic supplement at hand, as intake suggestions may vary based on the strain. But at the end of the day, whether you opt for probiotic-rich foods, supplements, or any combination thereof, you’re already going in the right direction; just be sure to listen to your body in case discomfort arises. Otherwise, while it may be beneficial to take probiotic supplements generally around mealtime or before bed, your best bet to yield goodness for your gut (and your wellness game at large) is to make sure you get your fix on the daily.