A quick departure from Omega-3 and fish oil to talk about something just as important…
While playing in the backyard few years ago, my daughter picked up a roly-poly pill bug. She quickly ate half of it and offered me the other half.
We’d been trying to teach her to share.
‘Aye-aye-ugh…thank you, sweetie,’ I replied, trying to hide my horror. The suburban father in me was disgusted. But the geek in me was quite pleased about the introduction of new probiotic strains into her gut.
How was I going to explain it to my wife? This, a day after the same child was caught swirling her hands in the toilet bowl. The kid was under my watch during both incidents.
This brings me to why I don’t regularly take probiotic supplements. Yes, sometimes, this blog strays from talking about Omega-3 and fish oil supplements.
It’s not because I don’t think probiotics are not important. Quite the opposite. It is desperately important.
The importance of a healthy gut flora
I don’t consistently take a fancy probiotic supplement from the bug refrigerator at Whole Foods. We’ll soon get to the reasons why…
But there’s more to it than eating a cup of Activia and hoping you’ll poop regularly. If you take probiotics just for being regular or to boost immunity (whatever that means!), you’re missing the big picture.
There is a flood of new research proving that your ‘microbiome’ or the trillions of bacteria that live in your gut have an effect on not just your gut health, but also:
These critters control us more than we ever thought possible.
The problem with probiotic supplements
‘Potent’ probiotic supplements have, what, a dozen species? What about the other 99% of species?
I’m guessing that if you took every probiotic supplement known to mankind, that you’ll get to about 50 different species. That’s great…what about the other 95%?
Most probiotic supplements (Lactobacillus or Bifidobacteria) are dairy-based or derived. They’re great for digesting milk. But beyond that, their benefits are limited.
Exceptions are products like CardioViva, a Lactobacillus shown to help your heart, and products like Align or Culturelle. These are single proprietary strains used for very specific health goals, with a lot of research behind them. This is where the future of probiotic supplementation is going. There are proprietary (or patented) bugs for colic, mood, weight loss etc..
The bugs in a healthy gut are mostly soil-based. Soil-based is a nice way to say dirt. In this list of top gut bacteria, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria are nowhere to be seen.
My point is: the number and variety of healthy bacteria in your gut are extremely important. Supplements, as always, come up short.
Don’t just take a Lactobacillus or Bifidobacteria pill and call it a day. Sure, it’s nice, but you haven’t altered your health much.
If you really want to improve your health and have a thriving gut population of probiotics, you will need to change not just your probiotic supplement, but also your diet, lifestyle and your attitude towards dirt.
The two key things about your gut flora are:
- The number of healthy microbes in your gut
- The variety of healthy microbes in your gut
But before we jump in, while you read all this, keep in mind that we’ve just emerged from the dark ages of probiotics. There has only been focused research on this for a couple of decades. And US consumers have only been aware of it for a decade or so.
What we know about the benefits of having a healthy gut microbiome is miniscule. I suspect it will be a fairly common occurrence in our great-grandchildren’s time to get poop transplants. Fecal banks. Seriously. Take a little poop from a healthy person and delicately welcome it into ones hind quarters to make an unhealthy person whole. Sound crazy? It’s already being done. It’s been effective and safe. (Update: fecal banks already exist! OpenBiome)
Want to lose weight? Skinny and obese people have different sets of bugs in their gut. Can transferring bacteria from a skinny person’s colon into an obese person (fecal transplant) make them skinny? Poop pills are not science fiction. It’s also already been done. And proven to help irritable bowel syndrome and colitis.
The point I’m trying to make (besides using shock to expand our view of the role of probiotics) is that we’re at the leading edge of this probiotic revolution. There are brave pill poppers out there, yet there is a lot we don’t understand.
Back to discussing the key factors in probiotics:
The number of Probiotic Bacteria
No, I’m not talking about the bug count on the bottles.
10 years ago, it was impressive to have 1 million acidophilus bugs per pill. Then the cool kids started selling 1 billion. Then 10 billion. Now 100 billion doesn’t get much attention.
This is a marketing rat race and it’s mostly bullshit.
Formulas with a dozen or more species are not necessarily better. Some species inhibit eatch other. None of the major brands of probiotics on the market have studies how their species interact and which one’s left standing.
Whether you’re welcoming these bugs into a place that’s hospitable to them and whether you eat foods they need is what matters.
It’s easy for the 100 billion to become 10 billion while the bottle is on the shelf. And then for it to become 1 million after the bugs have been thrashed by your stomach acid. So don’t fall for the numbers nonsense.
A healthy gut has hundreds of trillions of thriving bacteria. One pill isn’t going to do a damn thing to the total number. If you look at your body as a total number of cells. We are outnumbered. There are more bacterial cells in your body than human cells. You’re 5% human and 95% bacteria. You’re a giant lump of bacteria wearing a human suit. Sorry – I calls it as I reads it.
What affects the number of bacteria in your gut?
Antibiotic overuse and a diet low in soluble fiber are the two main reasons for reduced gut flora.
Antibiotic overuse. Sure, they save lives. But rampant and often unnecessary antibiotic use is the #1 killer of healthy gut microbiomes. Antibiotics are indiscriminate, killing both good and bad bacteria.
This becomes a vicious cycle because a compromised bacterial community allows you to get infected by antibiotic-requiring harmful bacteria. And yes, they are a community. Good guys join hands and fight the bad guys. Example: think of a probiotic-compromised child born via C-section and exclusively bottle fed. He or she invariably gets an ear infection and gets regular doses of antibiotics. It could take the child several years (if ever!) to recuperate a full gut flora.
We worry about creating resistant bacteria with excess antibiotic use. But the bigger risk may be that we’re permanently altering our protective gut flora with each antibiotic treatment.
One course of a gut-blastin’ antibiotic like Cipro can wipe out a third of your bacterial community.
Diet. Gut bacteria use soluble fiber in your diet as a food source. This is the kind of fiber that you really want, not the physically abrasive insoluble kind marketed on breakfast cereal boxes that does very little besides increase stool volume.
Soluble fiber is found in veggies, fruits and beans. They’re also found in unrefined grains, but you get more bad than good with grains. Since most of us don’t eat enough veggies, we starve our gut bacteria. Same goes for the extreme low-carb folks who eat nothing but animal protein and fats – you may be skinny and non-diabetic for the first time in a decade, but your gut flora is starving.
We’ll get to specific foods for your gut later.
What affects the variety of bacteria in your gut?
The variety and diversity of your gut flora is key. Having the right type of friendly bacteria is important not just because of the push and pull of friend versus foe, but because good bacteria secrete butyrates and other fatty acids that keep your colon healthy.
People with IBS have 25% fewer types of bacteria in their gut. We’re talking variety, not total numbers. They’re missing 250 of the 1000 or so types of bacteria. Turns out that folks with colitis and Cronh’s have similar limited bacterial ‘signatures.’
Antibiotic use. Besides cutting down the number of friendly flora, antibiotics wipe out, sometimes permanently, many species of bacteria.
Dirt-phobia and germophobia. This is a big one. I know people who douse their children with antibacterial hand sanitizing goop every few hours. It’s done with good intentions but if only they knew the harm they’re inflicting.
Toddlers and preschoolers need to get grubby and dirty. They check to see if everything is al dente. This is the natural process of gut colonization.
Of course, never to leave a fear untapped, marketers have taken germophobia to new heights. Heck, they sell Triclosan-laced antibacterial toothpaste and kitchenware! I give up.
Exposure to nature. Children living on farms have far less allergies and asthma than city kids. Children exposed to dirt (and the organisms within) and farm animals during their early years even get some immunity from Type 1 Diabetes.
A century or two ago, most of us lived on farms and rural areas full of dirt and bacteria. Showers were scarce and everyone may have walked around with clothespins on their noses but allergies, Crohn’s and type 1 diabestes were rare.
Nature is where we get a lot of our good bacteria – soil based organisms or SBOs – it’s cleaner sounding than saying ‘Bugs From Dirt.’
A ‘soil-based’ bacteria commonly found on fruits and vegetables, Mycobacterium vaccae, has been shown to improve cognitive function and diminish anxiety-like behavior…at least in animals.
I know some people who eat their backyard veggies ‘lightly washed,’ just to get some bugs. For the less daring (nutty?), I suggest a product called Prescript-Assist, a supplement of soil based bacteria. In my opinion, this product stands head and shoulders above the probiotic supplement fray. I occasionally take it and even sprinkle it over my kids’ dinners. Even it contains only about 29 species.
Our manicured and sterile suburbs and homes in middle-class and upper middle-class America are dangerously empty of dirt.
So munch away, my dear, on roly polies. We won’t tell mommy.
If you’re lucky, you may still have the bacteria that your mother gave you during childbirth and breast feeding. Or the bugs that you swallowed from your own roly-poly-eatin’ days.
If probiotics are so great, why not supplement?
There is nothing wrong with supplementing with probiotic pills. Many of the bugs in probiotic supplements are transient – they are gone from your body in a few weeks. While they do a lot of good during their stay, supplements are simply inadequate.
I’m constantly trying to increase the variety and quantity of my gut flora. And supplements are inefficient and limited at both. I use supplements as part of a ‘recolonization program,’ especially if I’m forced to take an antibiotic. I recently had to take Cipro after picking up a charming respiratory tract infection while camping in the Amazon jungle.
My gut recolonization plan:
- Take Prescript Assist and about a dozen different brands of supplements. Once I’ve reintroduced these bugs to my gut, I don’t take the pills anymore.
- Fermented foods. Fermentation often takes place in low-oxygen environments like our gut. These anaerobic bugs are not often found in supplements. I consume several different types of sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha. I love this Hot Pink Jalapeno Garlic Kraut. I make yogurt at home – the stuff in grocery stores don’t interest me because they’re sweetened, too low in fat, underfermented and too high in lactose.
- Soluble fiber and Resistant starch. I gradually increase the prebiotic content in my diet by eating more soluble fiber and resistant starch. These are what gut flora thrive on. A little bit of prebiotics can make a huge difference in the number and the ratio of good vs bad bacteria in your gut. You could try prebiotic supplements (fertilizers for probiotics) like Inulin FOS or Arabinogalactan, oligofructose etc., in very small doses at first. I don’t take prebiotic supplements, I prefer food. Raw onions, garlic, leeks and jerusalem artichokes are good sources of prebiotics.
Don’t fall for products that claim to be both pre and pro-biotic. This is like a shampoo with a built-in conditioner. For prebiotics to work, you need teaspoon quantities of it. Fairy-dusting is a marketing gimmick.
The real reasons I don’t take probiotic supplements…
…are that I’ve replaced probiotic supplements with fermented foods and soluble fiber. This is a far healthier, cheaper and tastier approach to maintaining gut health.
After all, what’s the point of taking probiotic pills if you’re not feeding your gut flora with the right kinds of food? Think of them as a pet you have to feed.
Fido or Bifido – both need to be fed.
Care and Feeding of Bowel Bugs
Start eating foods rich in soluble fiber: brussel sprouts, avocado, yams, potatoes, oranges, sweet potato, asparagus, nuts, apples, turnips, plantains, taro, and broccoli.
You can get soluble fiber from beans, but make sure the beans are soaked overnight before you cook them.
Here is an easy way to cheat: this unmodified raw potato starch is full of resistant starch, a type of fiber that you won’t digest, but will make your gut flora very happy. Start with just half teaspoon a day and work up to a couple of tablespoons per day…or else you’ll end up with what my roly-poly eater calls butt-burps.
The cell lining of your colon is built to thrive on the butyrates secreted by probiotics. Any left over butyrates help reduce inflammation in the gut – hope Crohn’s and IBD folks are reading.
Oh, and if you want find out what’s in your gut, check out the American Gut Project.
Eating fermented foods and following up by feeding your gut bacteria soluble fiber from foods are far more effective, cheaper and fun than taking probiotic supplements.
Source: Benjamin Arthur (NPR)