December 13, 2011

Probiotics: Healthy or Hype?

Flickr: SuperFantastic

 This is the first Q & A in my weekly series published here on elephantjournal.com. Everything you ever wanted to know about natural medicine, now you get to ask! Please email me with questions at info [at] drpaulgannon [dot] com.

Q: I’ve been seeing a lot of new probiotic products on grocery store shelves lately and as a healthy guy in my 20s, I’m wondering are they worth the purchase or just a bunch of hype?

A: Probiotics are not just a bunch of hype—they actually happen to be one of my most prescribed remedies.

We have trillions of bacteria cells in our intestines, which is more than all the cells of our body, and of those trillions of cells, there can be hundreds of different species of microorganisms.

So why are these little bugs so important?

The résumé for probiotics is so extensive (I could list 30 things that they do but will not for the sake of you reading this). Let’s just look at a few major things:

Produce Vitamin K

Produce some B vitamins

Help the absorption of calcium, magnesium and zinc

Gobble up toxic heavy metals like mercury and lead, moving them out of the body

Fight many other microorganisms like E coli, clostridium and H.pylori, the causitive agent for stomach ulcers—helping to keep their numbers at bay.

Flickr: Lynda Giddens

How to Choose Probiotics

Probiotics are not all created equal and that is where you have to be more diligent, especially when purchasing on the internet or in a health food store.

Each bottle you pick up will contain its own blend, at varying levels of potency. You will see probiotics containing two billion per capsule which sounds like a lot doesn’t it? But there are probiotics that contain 25 to 50 billion per capsule and that is what you want to be looking for.

In addition, the species must pass through the stomach without being killed by the acidic environment down there. Certain species will pass through stomach acid nicely, and others may be more vulnerable to it. Some companies choose to use enterically coated capsules and some others use various technologies to ensure safe passage. To further complicate matters, not all products have as many live bacteria in them that are promised on the label, or they have species that are contaminants from the growing process that are not listed on the label.

It is confusing to say the least. From my perspective as a doctor, I take probiotics very seriously, as they are one of my most prescribed products in my practice. I am prescribing probiotics for just about every intestinal issue from diarrhea to ulcerative colitis, from vaginal yeast to bladder infections, on to toxin removal for detox programs.

I personally know the manufacturer that supplies my probiotics and know the species in the bottle so that I know what I am working with. I can’t trust to have a patient just go to any health food store to get just any probiotic. I have to know that what I am using will help their situation or my recommendations will be ineffective. That said, when it comes to probiotics, you may want to consider getting them solely from a naturopathic doctor or nutritionist. Or use ones you have gotten relief from in the past and that you know to be excellent, as they are not cheap.


Probiotics are staying inside the gastro-intestinal tract and not crossing over to get into your bloodstream. For that reason they are still part of the outside world. Know that there is absolutely no toxicity involved in using probiotics. You can take any number of capsules for however long you want and never have to worry about negative effects. They are also safe during all stages of pregnancy.

Cultured Dairy and the Like

And lastly, what about yogurt, kefir, and various cultured vegetables? These are excellent and will offer you good results while you are consuming them. However, these are more transient bacteria, meaning that the species that culture dairy do not necessarily want to culture your intestines. So three days after eating the cultured products, those bugs are usually gone, whereas three months after taking an excellent quality probiotic capsule, those bacteria are hopefully still there growing and happily taking over the neighborhood and pushing out the undesirables.

And Lastly, When to Take Probiotics: 

There has always been an area of controversy about when to take probiotics. Empty stomach or with meals?

Some labels still say to take on an empty stomach, but if you think about it, when the stomach is empty, that is when it is most acidic, somewhere down around pH of 2. When you add food to the mix, the pH goes up, closer to neutral (but still acidic) to anywhere from 3.0 to 6.0.

I suggest about an hour to two hours after eating, as that is when the stomach is emptying, so that should mean the least amount of time in the stomach and the least exposure to acids for the probiotics.

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