November 27th, 2012
By Craig Fear
Probiotics are one of the two supplements I regularly use with clients (the other being fermented cod liver oil).
I’ve seen so many people benefit from taking probiotics and that includes myself.
So then why did I stop taking probiotics in supplement form? And why do I recommend to my clients that they stop taking them as well?
Well there used to be one simple reason (see #3 below) but after seeing Sandor Katz speak at the recent Weston Price Foundation conference, I now have two additional reasons.
The first reason is that probiotic supplements are proprietary strains. That means they are formulated in laboratories by companies so they can be patented and then sold for profit. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Many companies put out effective probiotic supplements. Dozens of studies using probiotic therapy show benefits in treating IBS, constipation, diarrhea, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and many other digestive issues.
However, few studies have ever been done with actual fermented foods. Why?
Because you can’t patent sauerkraut. Or kimchi. Or any food for that matter.
According to Dr. Mercola on his website, one serving of fermented vegetables has 100 times more beneficial bacteria than an entire bottle of a high potency probiotic product!
And let’s not forget that fermented foods are a part of the diet of every traditional culture on this planet. They have been around as long as humans have been around. It is only recently with the advent of refrigeration and processed foods that many industrialized societies have stopped using traditionally fermented foods.
Katz brought up another interesting point regarding probiotic therapy.
In the first chapter of his new book, The Art of Fermentation, Katz conveys the great mystery of the evolution of bacteria on our planet and the incredible ways in which they communicate, evolve and transform all life, including human beings.
“We know more about the stars in the sky than about the soil under our feet” says microbiologist Elaine Ingham.
Katz depicts bacteria as co-evolvers or even co-creationists in the dance of Life and that they are more influential to our lives and all life on the planet than we can ever realize.
We have not evolved separately from bacteria. We have evolved together and sure enough we could not exist without them.
Recent research shows that bacteria freely exchange genetic material.
This flow of genes allow bacteria to rapidly evolve and adapt to new conditions. It’s the inherent problem with the widespread use of antibiotics in both humans and livestock. Bacteria can adapt quickly and become resistant setting the stage for new diseases and health epidemics.
Katz points out that some microbiologists believe bacteria are not truly distinct species but exist as a continuum across the planet, exchanging and utilizing genes which makes them highly adaptable to so many vastly different living conditions. In fact, the human microbiome, that is, the totality of all the microorganisms that reside on and in human beings, contains one hundred times more genes than human beings.
A recent MIT study also found that the bacteria that reside on and in humans are 25 times more likely to exchange genes than non-human bacteria. Nobody knows why but we know that just as humans are adaptable to almost every climate and landscape on earth, so are bacteria adaptable to all the micro-climates and micro-landscapes of the human body. Armpits, eyebrows, toenails, gums, stomach and intestines all offer vastly different niches for different strains of bacteria.
In fact, scientists at North Carolina State University found 1400 strains of bacteria that reside just in the human belly button, half of which have never been identified before.
Of course, the majority of the human microbiome resides in our gut and the research on these intestinal bacteria is nothing short of mind-blowing, literally speaking. In addition to playing vital roles in our physical health, it turns out they may be able to influence our mental health as well.
Before I get too far out on a tangent, what that means for us is that specific strains of bacteria may not be as important as once thought. In other words, probiotic therapy is based on the belief that certain strains are vital for our health. And so we take these capsules with billions of strains of Lactobacillus and/or Bifidobacteria and maybe a few others. Every company has a different formulation of different strains with different studies and reasons why their formulation is best.
However, the genetic fluidity of bacteria suggests that variety and diversity may be more beneficial than specific strains.
This is certainly what Katz believes.
And it makes sense to me as well. After all, if there are hundreds of newly identified bacteria in our belly buttons, who knows how many have yet to be discovered in fermented foods?
So while a probiotic supplement may offer help, over the long term I think it’s more important to regularly incorporate Nature’s true probiotics, fermented foods.
This is why I stopped and this is when I tell my clients to stop. Nevertheless, many people continue to take pricey probiotic supplements for preventative reasons.
While I think that’s safer than taking drugs like statins for preventative reasons, remember, fermented foods give us a far greater variety and complexity of beneficial bacteria than probiotic supplements. While we can’t deny the benefits of probiotic supplementation, over the long term I trust the thousands of years of fermented foods in the human diet more than laboratory formulations.
Give me fermented foods over supplements any day.
Much tastier too.
While you certainly can find good sources of fermented foods in your local health food store (including a few on my resources page), it’s a lot more rewarding (and cost efficient) to make them at home.
All my clients learn about the health benefits of fermented foods. In my 3 month program I usually spend an entire class teaching people about their benefits with tips and handouts for how to make them at home.
And my absolute favorite week of my 12 week weight loss program is when I teach people how to make sauerkraut and kimchi.
You can also check out my videos on YouTube: