Probiotic Supplements: Worth Buying Or Not?

are probiotic bacteria as useful as they claim to be?

Probiotic supplements are fairly popular, and the word itself has become something of a buzzword that’s being added to many foods not normally associated with the term.

We’ve previously covered the most important points when it comes to vitamins and greens powders.  All too often people over-fixate on easily quantified measures that do more to confuse than clarify.  Structure, absorption, and the synergistic effects of what you consume your nutrients with likely play a bigger role than the bulk amount you consume.

So what about probiotics?

The Purported Health Benefits: True of False?

It was discovered in  that bacteria living in our gut have beneficial effects in our body.  The ensuing years have only strengthened this conclusion.

Probiotics are helpful in the following ways:

  • Compete with other harmful pathogens for food and space in the gut
  • help metabolize other nutrients so they can either be more easily digested or transported out of the body
  • reduce the amount of nasty stuff in our bloodstreams – sugar, cholesterol, fatty acids, etc.
  • promote immune cell function
  • suppress appetite, either by eating the food itself or helping to express different hunger silencing hormones such as ghrelin

At this point there’s no reason to suggest any of this isn’t true of probiotics.  But is this still true of probiotic supplements?

To me it looks like the issue is not one of absorbance and availibility like it is with vitamins, but sheer volume.   The bacteria living in yogurt and supplements are the same as the ones living in your intestine.  It’s not an issue of synthetic vs. natural.  Rather it’s making sure they get to your gut in the first place, and the more daunting fact that your gut already has trillions of bacteria living inside of it!

It’s with these two points where lucid thinking about probiotics is important.

Probiotic Supplments: Mostly Pretty Good

I’ve written before about the benefits of probiotics and prebiotics, and how they can stay stable even when put into powders and dry foods.  The good thing about living organisms is they can be conditioned to survive in different environments pretty effectively.  Especially something as resilient as bacteria.

However, bacteria all by themselves don’t normally survive the stomach. Typically the presence of a carbohydrate will do the trick, since the digestive enzymes will attack them before they get to the bacteria.  When bacteria are consumed in food this usually isn’t a problem since natural foods almost always have fiber in them.

However, when it comes to a supplement this means there are two important items to keep in mind:

  • probiotics are best digested with a prebiotic fiber
  • probiotics are best digested either with some other substance or need to be encapsulated to protect them when entering the stomach
  • pay attention to the colony forming units (c.f.u.) when buying something because that’s how much bacteria you’re actually getting

If the first two conditions are met then you should be in pretty good shape.

But this does nothing to address the issue of whether or not you can get enough probiotics from supplements all by themselves.

And the answer to that question is pretty clear: you can’t.

A Problem of Volume

Your gut has trillions of living organisms living inside of it, that probably comprise dozens if not hundreds of different organisms.

It’s impossible to eat enough bacteria to colonize your bacteria entirely through additional supplementation.  Any volume less than 5-10 billion won’t even make a dent.  A mere rounding error.

So when it comes to probiotics, it’s important not to think that you have some daily quota that you need to fulfill in order to get your RDA of helpful bacteria. They’re not vitamins.

Virtually all natural foods have some sort of micro-organism feeding on them.  It’s often quite a lot.  Not just yogurt and sauerkraut either.  All plants.  So eating your veggies is perhaps the most important part of colonizing your gut the healthy way.  Raw food especially.

And remember, it’s not the raw amount of bacteria you digest, but rather that the food you eat provides the nutrients necessary for the existing bacteria you already have to thrive and grow.  A good diet will do more to make your body “probiotic” than a supplement.

The benefit of the bacteria you digest won’t be because of what they do immediately inside your body, but because of what they will become after given time to multiply and thrive inside your intestine.

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