Probiotic Supplements: Pros and Cons

April 6th, 2010 by Tonya Zavasta

In our modern, hygienic, germophobic society, we forget that we share an amazing symbiotic relationship with an invisible world. Microbes exist within, without and all around you. Without them, your visible world (not to mention your good health) could not exist. The “invisible world” I’m talking about consists entirely of microorganisms or, as they’re more commonly known, bacteria.

Ideally, in your intestinal tract, there is a perfect balance between bacteriological “good guys” and “bad guys.” However, our standard American diet and lifestyle play havoc with nature creating a horrendous imbalance of intestinal flora until ultimately harmful bacteria outnumber beneficial bacteria so that disease and imbalances occur.

The term probiotics refers to the strains of beneficial bacteria that already exist in your system but are considered desirable to supplement because of their balancing, health-sustaining qualities. Beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract help keep bad bacteria in check and are indispensable for proper digestion, absorption and elimination. Imbalances result in all manner of symptoms: diarrhea, yeast infections, irritable bowel and leaky gut syndrome among the more common. Antibiotics are one of the biggest culprits in creating imbalance: They indiscriminately kill off bad and good bacteria in the body, creating havoc in the intestinal tract. Many believe that the answer lies in probiotic supplements.

Probiotics are bacteria that feed on what is called the “prebiotic.” A probiotic combined with a prebiotic—cabbage, let’s say—creates what is called a “symbiotic”—kimchee or sauerkraut, for example.

Let us see how probiotic supplements are made and why the sought-after benefits are not always met. When probiotics are made in a laboratory, they are usually fed by a very inexpensive sugar source, such as molasses, until they are grown enough to be separated from the prebiotic. Once they are separated from their food source they are usually freeze-dried. They are then put into an enterically coated capsule designed to open in the lower intestine (letting it bypass and survive the destructive effects of stomach acid). When it opens in the lower intestine, the capsule is expected to release the probiotic, which is then supposed to grow and spread through the body. The bad news is, by the time our friendly bacteria get all the way down there, they’ve often been so beaten up and abused that they don’t survive and are passed out through the bowel the next day along with spent food and other dead bacteria.

Probiotic supplements must be properly refrigerated to ensure the bacteria are still alive. How can you know whether your supplements mightn’t have been stored in a warm or heated environment during transportation? Even the most raved-about probiotic supplements are found on the shelf in a heated health food store. This alone is proof that you simply can’t rely on the viability of bacteria in your store-bought probiotic supplement, and cannot know whether they’ll give you the results you need.

People with an imbalance of bacteria, such as those transitioning from the standard American diet or those with a Candida overgrowth, may need to supplement temporarily until balance is reestablished. But part of the raw foods journey is about getting back to how we are made to eat—naturally! Before supplements were invented, people used food and herbs as their medicine. We, too, can achieve this natural state of life, once our bodies are functioning the way they were designed to.

Once your digestive system is clean and functioning properly, you should be able to get and absorb all you need from simple raw foods, with the addition of some fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kamahi, coconut kefir and nut cheese. Ideally, we should be able to obtain all our friendly bacteria from raw foods, and probiotic supplements should not be necessary.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. Some people need to supplement with high quality probiotics. They might have a severely compromised digestive system. In some cases, supplements are quite necessary for healing and improved health. Whether you decide to take probiotic supplements or obtain them strictly from your food will depend largely on where you are starting from and your own unique experience.

Consider…wouldn’t it make sense that, once you’ve established a healthy colon and digestive system, your body will no longer need to rely on man-made supplements? Personally, I don’t take any supplements, including probiotics. And my digestive system works amazingly well. I discuss this at length in the book Raw Foods and Hot Yoga. In my experience, everything I need in order to be vibrantly healthy I can find in the raw foods I eat. You’ll get maximum effect by eating cultured foods—the “symbiotic” foods I spoke about earlier—rather than by taking probiotic supplements.

Perfect health depends on a combination of many factors. A properly populated intestinal tract is one of the foundations. Fortunately, with a proper raw food diet including some well chosen fermented raw foods, you will find you won’t be bugged anymore!

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