Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Why I Stopped Taking Probiotics

This post originally appeared on Have Your Health, a past blog of mine active from 2013-14.

The book Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition completely changed my mind about health supplements and vitamins; I do not see myself buying (or taking) them from this point on. "But what about probiotics?" I found myself asking. Surely those must be in some magical category separate from health supplements, right?

I'd been so proud of the fact that since January 2014 I was taking them daily. Heck, I even wrote a post in April titled "Taking Probiotics Daily", in which I shared how I developed the habit of taking a probiotic pack every day. Also, probiotics are recommended in nearly every IBS article that I've read, so why should I doubt them?

The skepticism lingered on in my mind, and I subconsciously stopped taking my daily probiotics! I let myself experiment, wondering if I was better off without them. It's almost been a month now, and I haven't noticed a difference (Though they never seemed to improve my digestion in the first place). But that's not why I'm not ordering any more probiotic packs after I finish my existing two boxes in the cupboard.

Fermented foods > probiotics

In short, my simplistic natural approach is at it again. If you can get Vitamin C through a whole food, eat the whole food and not the tablet. So if you can get probiotics through fermented foods, why am I taking a manufactured powder?

Here are some of the blog posts that offer reasons not to take probiotics, some of which I'll discuss further below. These posts helped to shift my view about the supplements:
I do not think that probiotics are inherently bad. If you absolutely must take an antibiotic, then definitely take probiotic supplements before, during, and after - to do the least amount of damage as possible to your flora.

But for someone wanting to improve and sustain all of the micro-life in the gut, it's important to note that fermented foods have a much greater variety of microorganisms than probiotic supplements that are sold on the shelves. And variety seems to matter. A healthy gut has about 1,000 species or strains of bacteria inside, but people with IBS have 25% fewer types of bacteria than healthy people. One's variety of bacteria is obviously affected by what is consumed and introduced into the gut.

Probiotics are not enough

I had been missing the big picture all of these years: You can't just take probiotic supplements, you must also change your diet and lifestyle. How can the "good bacteria" survive if it's outnumbered by the bad? How can the helpful bacteria thrive if the food you're eating is actually feeding the harmful guys? How can the micro-organisms inside of you evolve and keep up with the changing micro-world if you stay in a highly sterilized indoor place most of the time?

Taking a daily probiotic supplement and calling it a day just doesn't cut it. Eating foods that are rich in soluble fiber (like brussel sprouts, yams, potatoes, sweet potatoes, nuts, oatmeal, oranges, apples, avocado, and broccoli), is a great way to help the bacteria in your gut. Also, don't be afraid to come into contact with bacteria and spend some quality time with nature.

Potential probiotic lies

One final swing at probiotic supplements is that their statements are not verified by the U.S. FDA. I've read about studies where probiotic supplements were tested and had up to 50% less live microorganisms than advertised.

Relatedly, the probiotic packs I have been purchasing and consuming (Dr. Mercola's Probiotic Packs) do not need to be refrigerated. I have seen again and again that if you don't need to refrigerate it, you're not getting many live cultures (or something like that). I don't know what the right "answer" is, if these non-refrigerated packs have any positive effect or not, but I just wanted to share this final doubt about my probiotic packs.

Moving forward (without probiotics)

Regardless of the truthfulness of claims on probiotic packaging, or whether or not they require refrigeration, taking a probiotic supplement is not the path to a healthy gut. Digestion is best when there is a large variety of micro-organisms inside, which can't be obtained from probiotic supplements containing only single-digit numbers of different bacteria strains.

While probiotics can certainly be beneficial if you're forced to take antibiotics, eating fermented foods and maintaining a diet favorable for the "good" bacteria is a much better route to digestive health.

All of this new information has me asking even more questions: What are prebiotics? What strains of micro-organisms are currently in my digestive tract? Which bacteria would improve my digestion and how can I introduce them into my body? What should I eat and avoid eating to sustain the helpful bacteria?

So I have lots to read, learn, and investigate yet in order to have more of my health. I'll share the journey here, of course!

I'd love to hear about your thoughts and experiences with probiotics! Do you take probiotic supplements? Have probiotics helped reduce IBS symptoms? Will you continue to take probiotic supplements?
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