Why Your Probiotic Isn't Working

If you’re on a probiotic, used to be on one, or are thinking about going on one, there is some interesting information out there about probiotics and their efficacy. I have taken them, sworn by them (and other fermented foods) so when I heard an episode of On Air With Ella, that featured triple-board-certified Dr. Zach Bush discussing the INEFFICACY of probiotics, my head almost exploded. What I’ve attempted here, is to divulge to you the same information he iterated on the podcast, because as always, I’m not here to tell you what’s right or wrong, just to simply give you the information so that you can make the best decision for yourself.

Our Gut ecosystem is described as complex as a coral reef or tropical jungle in terms of diversity & number of species that are trying to create an environment that can handle toxicity, environmental factors, and efficient absorption of nutrients. With our Western lifestyles, we are constantly destroying bacteria with antibiotics, antibacterial soaps, detergents, etc. and I don’t blame anyone for that. It makes sense that all these products were made at some point because of our need for convenience. Along side of that fact, it is logical to assume that bacteria cause infection (which some do), but we’re overdoing it, failing to realize that we NEED some of this bacterium to fight off viruses, breakdown our food, build our immune system, and create a healthy gut, that supports so much of our serotonin production!

The Probiotics industry is a 30-billion-dollar industry and you would think that something of that popularity would be evidence based, but it’s not. There is actually no conclusive evidence that probiotics are beneficial to humans. The truth is, probiotics are most likely falling short. Why? Our gut *should* have somewhere between 500-1,000 species of bacteria living in it, and being part of that complex ecosystem we talked about. Probiotics though, usually have less than 10 species of bacteria, that you’re introducing at extremely high numbers. In fact—consumers of probiotics often look for the probiotic with the highest number of live cultures. I know I did… I’d aim for the most! I landed on one that had 60 billion bacteria because logically, I thought my worn-down gut flora needed all they could get.

What I learned from Dr. Zach Bush is that If you start taking 3 or 5 species of bacteria at 60 billion copies a day, you will very quickly move AWAY from a complex integrated ecosystem of 30,000 species and instead create a “monoculture” of these 3-5 species. Given this information, it would be logical to assume that being on one single type of probiotic long-term, is the exact opposite of what we want. However, this is one of the most marketed tools for those trying to achieve gut health.

That’s not to say that probiotics don’t help some people… personally I DID see an improvement (placebo effect possible), and Dr. Bush explains why that may be: “You may have had 5-7 dominant species that were really, NOT beneficial to your health, then you overwhelm those species with 5-7 other species that had more of a health benefit, so you feel an initial improvement. If you separate out the placebo effect there is a small percentage of people that have some sort of measurable benefit in that first couple weeks on a probiotic.” Talk to those people in 6-12 months? It will probably be somewhere around the same. Dr. Zach Bush explains that after the initial improvement, people get stuck in the rhythm of taking the probiotics because they helped at first, but switching up probiotics, or even taking a break could be more beneficial. That being said, probiotics are a good option when you have to go on an antibiotic regimen for whatever reason.

The other problem highlighted by Dr. Bush about probiotics, is the source. Ever wonder where the probiotics you consume are coming from? 99% of probiotics on the market are derived from the intestines of cows. Now, animal cruelty aside, it’s kind of nice to see the whole cow used, but the problem behind that, is that we are completely different animals than a cow. They have different digestive situation than us: cows have 4 pouches but no stomach, no small intestine, no large intestine, and yet we’re trying to use their probiotics to sustain our system. The bacteria that is in their guts, doesn’t necessarily translate to ours, therefore does not perform the essential function of what we’re trying to replace.  We need different bacteria, because we have a different system, and a different diet.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD:

IF YOU’RE TAKING PROBIOTICS

If you feel that they help, then by all means—don’t stop. BUT, to boost the benefits (if there are any), switch up the brand, the cultures, the amounts in the bottle, and try not to take it every day. Allow for your body to have small breaks, to adjust and work with the new species of bacteria you are introducing. On your day’s off your probiotic, supplement with being outdoors and fermented foods (HINT: Look for ‘wild fermentation’ for best bacterium).

GO OUTSIDE

The best bacteria for our immune system comes directly from the environment. We breathe it in, we absorb it through out skin, so the best ‘probiotic’ we can get is outdoors and you can only get it in nature (as if I needed an excuse to not sit at my laptop all day). So go out, take your shoes off, and go walk around in the grass.

FERMENTED FOODS

The difference between homemade and store-bought Kombucha, Sauerkraut, Kimchi, Kefir, etc. The store-bought lot has 1-2 species of lactobacilli introduced to it (intentionally) for the fermentation process. The best fermented foods are made at home, because you have a more natural and diverse source of bacteria just floating around in the air, plus it’s from YOUR environment so it is unique to you. 

CLEAN A LITTLE LESS

This one is kind of counter-intuitive, but many people I talk to in the health community including my colleagues (who are doctors) believe in only washing your hands with warm water. Anti-bacterial soaps are detrimental to our gut bacteria, and we can largely diversify that bacterium by not over-sterilizing our environment. This applies to our homes as well. Ditch the Clorox wipes and replace them with some silver-fibered cleaning cloths. Silver naturally kills bacterium without spewing toxic fumes into your home and lungs.