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Do I Really Need Probiotics

May 11, 2014

A few years ago, I decided to start taking probiotics.  I thought this might be a good idea, and wanted to see if they made any difference to my health.  I started with activated yoghurt, eating some of it every day.  In the summer, I’d have a dessert that looked like peaches and cream, but was actually nectarine slices and vanilla yoghurt.  Eventually, I discovered that I could get the same bacteria in capsule form, and switched to that.  I still ate nectarines, but without the yoghurt.

I understand that colon bacteria are essential to our good health, and that hundreds of bacterial species normally live in our intestines.  In fact, there’s a whole suite of bacteria living there, maintaining a balance between the species.  They cooperate in that some bacteria can improve the environment for other bacteria.

I also know that taking a course of antibiotics can kill some bacteria or at least upset the balance of colon bacteria.  This opens the way for infection by toxic or dangerous bacteria.  I did take antibiotics regularly in preparation for dental work.  Fortunately, the American Heart Association recently changed its recommendation, so that I no longer have to do this.  Now I have no need for antibiotics at all, except in the event of an emergency.

I do know a few things about bacteria that have made me question some of the recommendations I see for probiotics.  Bacteria will grow and multiply in great numbers on a culture dish that’s incubated at the correct temperature, even when it’s been innoculated with only a few of them.  The same thing must happen in our intestines.  I don’t see any need to keep adding them, once they are established.

Of course, growth of bacteria depends on their environment.  Nutrients are important.  For colon bacteria, these come from the food that we eat.  These nutrients are called prebiotics.  They should not be digested in our stomaches, but should pass through to be consumed by the bacteria.  Prebiotics are classified as soluble fibre, although only certain types of soluble fibre have prebiotic properties.  I notice that the psyllium-based products are not advertized as prebiotics, but that the inulin-based ones are advertized that way.

Now I’m not sure what to do.  I’ve asked myself a series of questions about probiotics, but I don’t have many answers.  Part of the reason is that there haven’t been many scientific studies in this area.  Most of what I have to go on is based on fashion and advertizing.

  • Do probiotics get into the intestine?  I heard once that they were all killed in the stomach.  Now I see that some of them do make it through.  That should be easy enough to test; I suppose it’s correct.
  • Are regular additions necessary?  Labels on bottles of probiotic capsules say to take them every day, sometime three times a day.  I doubt that this is necessary because colon bacteria should continue to grow and multiply all by themselves.  The only times additions would be necessary would be to introduce new species or after some have been killed by a course of antibiotics.
  • Do species matter?  Activated yoghurt has only a few species of bacteria.  Capsules often have two or three times as many, but nowhere near the hundreds of species that already live in our intestines.  Yes, species matter because each type of bacteria performs a different function.  To a large extent, they will adjust themselves automatically, in response to the nutrients available in the colon.
  • What species are beneficial?  Only a few have been tested and found to be beneficial, although we can assume that all of the bacteria normally present in our intestines are actually beneficial.  Scientific research has also shown that sometimes bad bacteria will grow in place of the beneficial ones.  Replacing the bad ones with normal colon bacteria does improve the person’s health, sometimes in a spectacular fashion.  This area of study is still full of unknowns.
  • What nutrients are required?  First of all, they must pass through our stomaches undigested, so they can become food for the bacteria.  They are called prebiotics, and are present in many foods.  Prebiotics in food are classified as soluble fibre.  Generally, there’s not enough of them in processed food.  We likely need to add extra prebiotics to our diet in some manner.

I’m not sure now what I’ll do, but I’m probably going to stop taking probiotics every day.  I’m probably also going to see what I can do to increase the amount of prebiotics in my diet.


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