“The human body houses somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred trillion bacteria within the body—about 3.5 pounds worth.” But don’t think of that fact as a new method for losing weight – rather make sure you turn the porch light on and lay out the guest towels: those bacteria, including 400-500 different species in the gut alone, are responsible for your health as much as or more than the food we eat.
In fact, the bacteria in your body outnumber your own cells ten to one. It’s a good thing they’re friendly, isn’t it?
With that ratio, if the bacteria wanted to take over, they certainly would have the means.
I mentioned in this week’s Monday Mission on getting more probiotics that I recently changed the probiotic supplement I take because of a current debate over the safety of my old one. On my first visit to my new naturopath at Elder and Sage, she introduced me to the problem.
Many people, most notably Jordan Rubin of The Maker’s Diet and Garden of Life supplements, credit soil-based organisms (SBOs) for their miraculous recovery. In Rubin’s case, after seeing over 60 specialists all around the world for his severe Crohn’s Disease and related complications, it was SBOs that finally brought him back literally from the brink of death.
Why the controversy?
Soil-based organisms reproduce differently than other bacteria that are normally part of our flora in that they are spore-forming. Because of these spores, if a person does not have enough of their own healthy gut flora to compete with the SBOs, it opens the door for them to become pathogenic.
You read that right.
Supplements you take on purpose to improve your health and your gut flora could actually turn against you and become pathogens (harmful bacteria) themselves.
Isn’t that lovely?
What We Don’t Know
The trouble with finding good information about probiotics is that research is sorely lacking. For the last century or so, our researchers and doctors have been focused on fighting the enemy rather than learning about the weapons we can utilize to protect ourselves. Most of the studies we have access to teach us what disease does to the human body and then test the effectiveness of man-made weapons, like antibiotics, in fighting them.
It’s been a very recent shift that we’re even looking into our own flora, the millions and trillions of beneficial bacteria that our bodies already possess, and how that can be a line of defense against disease. Because of that, we don’t really know how probiotics work or even how our own gut flora operates with very much detail.
There are a few studies referenced here at the Wikipedia page on microbiomes, but it’s clear that we have a lot to learn.
Currently, Washington University is host to the government-funded Human Microbiome Project, which seeks to “characterize the microbial communities found at several different sites on the human body, including nasal passages, oral cavities, skin, gastrointestinal tract, and urogenital tract, and to analyze the role of these microbes in human health and disease.” (source)
They’re embarking on fascinating and vitally important work, and countries all over the world are also sparking an interest in the bacteria we carry around. Here’s an interesting and exciting Q&A with the Associate Director of the Genome Institute if you’d like to learn more.
One of the only studies so far involved a mere 100 people, all from the same geographic area, and although it is helpful, it’s simply too narrow to extrapolate data to the entire population quite yet. Because everybody’s resident bacteria and pathogens are different, we can pretty much say that we don’t really understand our own internal probiotics yet, and we know even less about what probiotic supplements do in the body.
No studies have been done to determine if probiotic supplementation could ever repopulate one’s gut permanently, changing the resident bacteria to a properly balanced flora. In fact, some research does show that within two weeks, most supplemented probiotics exit the gut and are excreted.
Since our resident friendly bacteria make up 70% of our immune system, responsible for fighting viral, bacterial, and fungal infections, it’s exciting that researchers are finally looking into the little guys.
Where Does Our Flora Come From?
Why all this talk about unhealthy, unbalanced flora? It’s widely believed that, at birth, babies’ guts are sterile of all bacteria. Beginning at birth and continuing through the first two years of life, the tiny human being becomes residence for various bacteria, beneficial or detrimental depending on the environment provided in the gut and what the baby comes into contact with.
Think it’s a good idea to let baby have sugar before age two? My first two babies didn’t have desserts until after age one, but poor John…there’s no way I’m letting him have sweets, if I can possibly stop it, until age two now that I’ve read that fact! Sugars and refined flours are food for pathogens, dangerous bacteria. If you feed them, they will come.
My oldest son, now seven, clearly has bacterial issues and has needed antibiotics numerous times. He had antibiotics at birth, had sugar and flour in things like Cheerios well before age one, and has certainly had his fair share of white flour in his lifetime. Le sigh. I doubt it’s a coincidence, and I think I’ll try to sneak probiotics capsules into his smoothie more often.
Do You Eat Dirt?
The probiotic strains in yogurt and kefir are usually lactobacilli or bifidobacteria (I wonder if I’m making those plural correctly…), both of which are part of our resident bacteria, generally. The probiotics in the Garden of Life supplements are “soil-based organisms,” which are bacteria that literally live in the soil. They are still friendly to humans, but they’re not automatically part of our resident flora. “Transient micro organisms [like SBOs] are different from resident micro organisms in that they do not take up permanent residence in the gastrointestinal tract. Instead, they establish small colonies for brief periods of time before dying off or being flushed from the intestinal system via normal digestive processes, or by peristaltic bowel action.” source
Until about 100 years ago, SBOs were a regular part of people’s diets. When food processing got between farmers and eaters, the food chain, in a sense, was literally interrupted, and consumption of SBOs drastically diminished. Also I must imagine that the clean-to-the-point-of-sterile society we live in has reduced our interaction with these friendly little guys, further removing SBOs from our guts.
I’ve always wondered aloud while watching my babies put everything in their mouths how that could possibly be a good evolutionary trait. Maybe the good Lord made a little “oops” on that one, since dirty things and items small enough to choke a baby don’t seem helpful when placed into the mouth at mind-warping speed by chubby little fingers.
Now, I understand.
Human babies were created to crawl around in the dirt, getting intimate with the soil-based organisms they might find. Putting everything in the world in their mouths is a unique form of inoculation, brilliant in its simplicity. Those babies under two are working to populate their guts with healthy bacteria, and who knew? Eating dirt is a darn good idea.
In fact, research shows that children do better than adults with SBO supplements. The theory is that their little bodies are primed for the SBOs, and that perhaps, adults who simply haven’t been exposed to them much in the past can’t quite handle the influx of SBOs when they start a supplementation regimen. Here’s where the story gets ugly…
When Good Bacteria Goes Rogue
Because so many adults have damaged flora, they don’t have enough of their own healthy bacteria to even stake a claim in their gut. Soil-based organisms, being spore-forming, proliferate very rapidly, and one theory is that without enough resident bacteria to hold up the front lines, the SBOs literally take over a person’s gut, becoming pathogenic in their aggression.
“Research from California has concluded that a deficiency of medicinal ‘superbugs’ – known as Soil Based Organisms (SBO) – from our soil and food chain may be responsible”(1) for intestinal illnesses and diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, colitis, candidiasis, and colon cancer. source
Because we’re deficient, some people can’t handle them when they come. Dr. Doran-Fisher has anecdotal evidence of clients who took a turn for the worse when they started SBO supplements and improved once they used a refrigerated strain with lactobacilli and bifidobacteria.
If you’re taking a probiotic and it’s not doing anything good for you, and especially if you noticed negative changes after an initial possible issue with constipation or flatulence as the body adjusts the the new bacterial balance, stop and look for a new one.
This pathogenic SBO issue really is a problem, and I’m hopeful that some of the newer research coming out will determine if adults who haven’t been exposed to SBOs can somehow rebalance their gut first and then use SBOs. Check this out:
Studies conducted in regard to SBOs provide evidence that “without SBO’s to police digestion our bowels often end up as toxic waste dumps for rotting faecal matter which builds layer upon layer until the intestinal wall cannot absorb anything useful and we start to drown on our own toxins….With an intestinal wall starved of nutrients however it can quickly become porous like Swiss Cheese leading to the much maligned ‘Leaky Gut Syndrome’ where undigested waste food can leak into the blood leading to fierce immune reactions ”(5) By supplementing SBOs into daily dietary habits, the occurrences illnesses and diseases such as these may be reduced or altogether prevented. source
In other words, because we’re deficient in soil-based organisms in our clean society, we’re getting sick. Because we’re sick and out of balance, some of us might not be able to handle getting the SBOs that could help us, and they’ll make us sicker instead.
UPDATE 7/10/12: I found a few more sources about soil-based organisms being harmful. This one is particularly packed with academic sources at the end, AND it discusses how Garden of Life has changed their formula to remove all but one SBO. This one touches on nomenclature in the probiotic world.
If You Poop Once a Day, You’re Not “Regular”
My 4-year-old will tell you that “brown, orange, red, brown, orange, red” is a pattern…but that doesn’t mean it will look good on your shirt.
Just because your bowels follow a regular pattern doesn’t mean you have healthy digestion.
Healthy digestion is determined by the consistency of your stool (see here for a lovely pictorial chart), frequency of elimination (2 or more times per day, every time you eat usually optimal), and how satisfied you feel when you’re finished. Click here for some questions to help you consider your own digestion.
I always thought once a day was great, and as long as I wasn’t in pain, I wasn’t constipated.
When I give up all grains and sugar (for Lent), something changes. I end up moving my bowels just about every time I sit down to urinate. Thank you for not grimacing or laughing as you read that.
When the grains and sugar come back, things immediately change. This is something I had never realized in 30 years of living, people! You really can learn new things about your body, even when you think you’re in perfect health.
Some odd issues have come up in my personal health lately – I’ll share more once I feel like I’ve beaten them – but one result of my battle against pathogens in my body was to switch up my probiotic regimen. I stopped taking Garden of Life probiotics and started eating my homemade lacto-fermented sauerkraut and kimchi (which I learned to make via the fermented foods eCourse) at every meal, and I ate a probiotic chocolate bar every day for two weeks.
I always thought people were a little (or a lot) off their rockers when we’d talk sauerkraut, which I’ve always despised despite the half-Polish blood coursing through my veins, and they would tell me that I would begin to crave the stuff after eating it for a while.
The only thing sauerkraut will make me do is cringe, I always thought.
During the time of really working on my flora imbalance, intellectually I knew I needed it at every meal, so I forced myself.
And I couldn’t believe it, but after just a few days of regular fermented foods consumption, I did start to want a bite when I opened the refrigerator door for a snack. I’m working on enjoying it (and remembering it) even more.
Do You Take Probiotics?
I also want you to read this post with a perspective from another naturopath on the refrigerated issue (myth?).
I never thought I had poor digestion, and I always thought of myself as the picture of health. But maybe I didn’t eat enough dirt as a child. I’m guessing, not as a medical professional of any kind, but as a thinking person in the 20th century, that all Americans should probably take a probiotic supplement.
And if you don’t see a change in two weeks, you should probably try something different. Look for probiotics in the refrigerated section of your health food store. If it’s not refrigerated, it’s either SBO probiotics or something is amiss (UPDATE 2018: I don’t think that’s true anymore! More research needed…).
Some Quality Probiotics
Some of these I’ve used, some I’m planning to use, and some have been recommended by friends and professionals alike. It’s good to remember a few things about probiotics: 1. People should get different colonies of probiotics, so switching brands/strains every so often (6 weeks?) is good practice. 2. What works great for one person’s needs doesn’t always work for another. These can be very different! A one-day trial to Probiotic Advisor might help you get up on current research quickly if you’re really digging in; otherwise, here are some to narrow down the thousands of brands out there:
- Miessence Liquid Probiotic – notes: this is the easiest for kids to take because it’s liquid on a spoon, no powder to hide in smoothies and no capsules to swallow. If you’re on a no-sweetener diet of any kind, it does have agave so could be a no-no. Gluten-free.
- Miessence Powder Probiotic – notes: must be hidden in a smoothie but is less expensive than the above. Not gluten-free. Helped me beat a candida rash when nothing else could.
- Biokult – highly recommended by many, including the GAPS diet
- Thrive Probiotics – this one can be taken during antibiotics and not be rendered ineffective, which almost all other probiotics are!
- Perfect Supplements Prescript Assist – soil-based; read the description at the page for more details on what that means
- Klaire Labs Pro-biotic complex V-caps or Ther-Biotic Complete (25 billion CFU)
- Probiophage DF (7 dairy-free strains)
- Transformation Enzymes (5 billion CFUs by may get through digestive tract…)
- Primal Blueprint (6 strains, 10 billion CFUs)
- Pharmax high potency (4 strains + FOS) or long-term HLC maintenance (2 strains)
- Pro-Bio from Enzymedica (8 strains)
- Syntol from Arthur Andrew Medical (13.6 billion CFUs with prebiotic, spore germinating blend, yeast cleanse)
- ProBio 5 from Plexus has been recommended many times, but it’s also, I think, an MLM so it’s possible the recs weren’t so authentic…?
- Dr. Mercola’s probiotics
- Nature’s Way Primadophilus Bifidus (the one I happened upon that I took for a while)
Do some people do very well with soil-based organisms in probiotics? Well, yes.
Does it scare me a little that some predict SBOs may kill more people than they help? Um. Yeah…
Natural health is a lot of guessing and checking, and that can get annoying at times…but it’s better than pathogens taking over your gut, yes?
What kind of probiotic do you take? Do you notice a difference if you stop taking it?
The source for this article is mostly an interview with Kathryn Doran-Fisher, N.D., who researched using the book sold at probiotic.org, as well as whatever sources are listed within the text.
Find more fascinating information: