You’ve likely already heard many of the great health benefits of probiotics, like how they support digestion, a healthier immune system, and even your mood.* So now that you’ve decided you want to take a probiotic, the next questions become: Which one do you take? Is a refrigerated variety best, or is shelf-stable just as good? And how can you make sure you’re storing them properly to reap all the perks of probiotics?* Here, expert answers to all your queries.
Do you need to refrigerate your probiotics?
Board-certified internist Vincent M. Pedre, M.D., says that there’s a really easy way to figure it out: Check the label. If your probiotic needs to be refrigerated, the manufacturer will generally state that somewhere on the bottle or package.
Another good indication of how to properly store your probiotic is how it was stored when you bought it. If you found it in the refrigerated section of your local health food store, or it was shipped from the manufacturer with an ice pack, chances are, it’ll probably need to stay refrigerated.
On the other hand, if your probiotics use shelf-stable technology, the label will say that, too. Many manufacturers even add some extra information about the proper way to store nonrefrigerated probiotics to extend their shelf-life.
Are refrigerated probiotics better?
As far as efficacy goes, you’re getting probiotic benefits with either option.*
The reason some probiotics need refrigeration and others don’t mainly comes down to the fact that different strains of probiotics have different sensitivity levels, and not all strains can be freeze-dried—the process used to make them shelf-stable—successfully. Some probiotic bacteria, like Lactobacillus delbrueckii, are highly sensitive to certain processing methods, like freeze-drying, while others, like Lactobacillus paracasei and spore-forming strains like Bacillus, come out live and ready to populate your gut on the other side.*
While you might assume that refrigerated probiotics contain fewer additives, this isn’t true in all cases. Pedre recommends checking your labels to make sure whatever probiotics you choose are free of additives.
Refrigeration may also create a barrier to taking probiotics in the first place, says Bindiya Gandhi, M.D., an American Board Family Medicine–certified physician with training in integrative and functional medicine. For example, if you travel a lot, it can be difficult to carry around a heat-sensitive bottle of probiotics wherever you go, so you’re more likely to just leave it behind instead.
What’s the best way to store probiotics?
While you don’t have to refrigerate shelf-stable probiotics, there are some things you can do to make them last longer:
- Keep your probiotics in their original package or bottle. Some materials, like glass or certain plastics, are better at blocking out humidity and other environmental factors that can kill the bacteria and reduce the effectiveness of your probiotic. You might not think anything of it, but manufacturers carefully choose their packaging to optimize shelf-life, so don’t transfer probiotics to pill containers or plastic baggies.
- Store them in a cool, dry place.
- Make sure they’re tightly sealed.
- Avoid storing them in a medicine cabinet in a bathroom where you shower. The heat and humidity from the hot water can kill the probiotics.
These tips helps maintain a safe temperature and protects the probiotics from their two major enemies: heat and moisture.
Can probiotic supplements expire?
Like all living things, probiotics eventually die—or expire—at some point. And because probiotics need to be alive to work, considering the expiry date of your probiotics is especially important.
When looking at a probiotic supplement, you’ll see that each one contains a specific number of organisms per capsule. For example, one probiotic may have 5 billion colony-forming units (or CFUs) per dose, while another has 25 billion CFUs. But, as Pedre points out, those numbers only represent what’s in the capsule up to their expiration. After that, the probiotic numbers go down and the supplement becomes less effective over time.
While this is true no matter how you store your probiotics, the less closely you follow the storage instructions, the more quickly it happens. For example, if your probiotic calls for refrigeration but you leave it out on the counter in the middle of the summer, the heat and moisture from humidity can kill some, or all, of the bacteria, even before the expiration date.
If your probiotic doesn’t have an expiration or best-by date, most supplements (including probiotics) are formulated to last at least two years beyond the manufacturing date (check the bottom of the bottle). If you like your probiotic, you’ll probably use it well before two years though.
The bottom line.
Refrigerated probiotics aren’t superior to the shelf-stable options out there. What’s most important is that you choose a high-quality probiotic and store it according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If your probiotic calls for refrigeration, keeping it cold keeps the bacteria alive. If your probiotic is shelf-stable, you don’t have to put it in the refrigerator, but proper storage techniques can help improve the odds that the bacteria live to their best-by date.
If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you.