Should I Take A Probiotic Supplement? The Complex World Of Your Microbiome -PeakCodex
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Should I Take A Probiotic Supplement? The Complex World Of Your Microbiome

14th April 2020
Probiotic supplement pills

The world of gut bacteria is a complicated one and probiotic supplements are often marketed as the wonder pill that will cure your unbalanced digestive system and positively benefit just about every other aspect of your life ranging from mental and cognitive health, energy and mood.

You only ever hear about the great benefits of popping probiotics like candy. But what about all of the other studies showing that probiotic supplements in fact have zero effect on your gut bacteria or even that they can be damaging to your health?

You probably wouldn’t buy these supplements if you were given a balanced view of them. The $123 billion supplement industry is within their legal rights to market them as they wish; they aren’t classified as drugs and therefore aren’t regulated by the FDA so they don’t need to undergo clinical trials.

Instead of discussing the ethics of the supplement industry we’ll explore what probiotics are, why probiotic supplements might not be a great for everyone and how you might obtain probiotic health benefits naturally without supplements.

The takeaway is that probiotic supplements can be beneficial for healthy people with good microbiomes and potentially dangerous to unhealthy guts.

What are probiotics?

Most people have heard of probiotics and that they probably should be taking some.

In theory you want there to be an abundance of ‘good bacteria’ in your digestive system so that when an unwanted species of bacteria tries to invade and take over, the good bacteria outcompete the bad ones.

Your gut has up to 1500 different kinds of bacteria and yeast that we know of and studies have shown that they are there for a reason. Most of them play a crucial role in how your body functions including protection against pathogenic bacteria by secreting anti-microbial proteins, helping our immune system as well as breaking down and metabolizing the food we eat.

In a nutshell probiotic is a term used to describe the cultures of gut bacteria which scientists have been able to identify to have a beneficial function in the human body.

What you don’t hear about probiotic supplements

Everyone has different strains and amounts of bacteria in their guts. This is speculated to be due to diet, medications, genes and just about every other lifestyle factor such as stress or sleep.

A study gave a certain strain of probiotic to different mouse groups with varying gut bacteria, ranging from normal to unhealthy as well as fed them different diets. They found that under certain conditions the ‘good’ probiotic turned malicious and started to eat the protective layer of the intestines, a condition which is thought to be linked to IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).

Therefore a probiotic might be beneficial for one person but harmful for another. And there is no way of knowing the state of your gut microbiome and how it will react to a certain probiotic.

Furthermore, taking a probiotic supplement doesn’t ‘fix’ your microbiome. Studies have shown that once you stop taking a certain strain of probiotic, your gut returns to normal.

Purple fermented sauerkraut

Are probiotics safe?

Health is complicated and it cannot be concluded that probiotic supplements are safe for everyone; there are just too many unknowns.

There are numerous studies showing the benefit of probiotics treating intestinal problems while others show the ineffectiveness of probiotics in treating them.

Another example of the inconsistent findings is when studies look at the use of probiotic supplements during a course of antibiotics which tend to destroy both the good and bad bacteria in the gut. There are studies showing the benefit of taking a probiotic supplement at the same time as antibiotics while other studies show the exact opposite where the use of probiotic supplements impaired and delayed the gut’s ability to return to normal.

This is one of the many reasons they aren’t commonly prescribed as a treatment by doctors, which is a good indication of the efficacy of these supplements.

It's important to talk to a doctor about whether you have a specific condition which studies have shown to benefit from probiotic supplements.

Should I take a probiotic?

The results on probiotic supplements being beneficial for health is inconclusive. But what about foods naturally high in probiotic bacteria?

Equally it cannot be concluded that there is a clear benefit to consuming for example sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) due to the lack of human clinical studies. A review of studies over a 90 year period revealed that sauerkraut in small amounts reduced inflammation but could also cause diarrhea.

The best thing for your gut health is to focus on making your diet as healthy as possible in general. Humans have been eating foods with natural probiotics for thousands of years, and we can still include these real foods into our diets despite the lack of evidence that it will cure your gut.

Unlike a probiotic supplement, foods like sauerkraut, kefir and kimchi don’t just have a couple of strains of bacteria. One study found 28 different strains of bacteria in sauerkraut, and there will be countless more the study didn’t find.

When you consume probiotics which are naturally found in food, you are also consuming fibre and various vitamins and minerals. Studies have shown that fermentation increases the bioavailable nutrition in foods. Sauerkraut in particular is extremely high in vitamin C and various other antioxidants. Which is why James Cook used it on board his expeditions to avoid scurvy, a serious vitamin C deficiency which affected many sailors in the 18th century.

If you want to experiment with how probiotic foods make you feel you can consume and enjoy them as part of a healthy and varied diet without overdoing it.

Purple fermented sauerkraut

Best probiotic foods

Fermentation is the process in which bacteria or yeast turns carbohydrates into alcohol or acid. In sauerkraut for example different kinds of lactic acid bacteria eat away the sugars in cabbage which in turn changes the environment into an acidic one where no other bacteria can grow. It’s a great method of preserving food without the need for freezing or refrigeration.

Making sauerkraut is easy to make at home. Learn how to make sauerkraut with these step-by-step instructions. You can also buy it from most stores. Just make sure it is found in the refrigeration isle as canned sauerkraut is heat treated (pasteurized) which kills off all bacteria, even the good ones.

Therefore most vegetables which have undergone fermentation have these strains of bacteria which humans can eat. This includes pickles, kimchi, natto, tempeh and miso to name a few.

Yogurt and kefir are made when bacteria is introduced into milk and undergoes fermentation. Kefir is also easy to make at home and the cultures are available on many websites.

Sauerkraut and other fermented foods are colonized and dominated by certain types of bacteria which means no other bacteria can thrive in it.

Difference between a probiotic and a prebiotic

Probiotics have a symbiotic relationship with prebiotics. The easiest way to think about prebiotics is that they are the fuel for the good bacteria (probiotics) in your gut. Prebiotics is fibre that your body cannot digest, so it ends up in the gut ready to be feasted on by the good bacteria.

Best prebiotic foods

Most foods have some prebiotics in the form of insoluble fibre. Some of the best prebiotic foods are green bananas, raw garlic, leek and onion, raw asparagus and Jerusalem artichokes. Prebiotic bacteria is also abundant in almonds, flaxseeds and pichacios. The pectin found in apple cider vinegar for example is a type of prebiotic.

The changes are that if you are eating a varied diet you’ll be getting all the prebiotics your body needs.

Your microbiome and the keto diet

No studies have been done on the effects of the ketogenic diet on gut microbiomes. There is little to suggest that you couldn’t get pro- and prebiotics from food alone on a varied ketogenic diet.

How to improve your gut health:

  • Eat grass fed organic meats and eggs from animals which have not received hormones and antibiotics.
  • Eat organic vegetables with less pesticides.
  • Fill your diet with leafy greens.
  • Eat high quality fats.
  • Avoid excess use of sweeteners.
  • Eat kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut and other fermented foods as part of a varied diet.
  • Kimchi in a bowl

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