Probiotics. More harm than good?

Probiotics. More harm than good?

If you’ve read my previous article on gut health, you’ll know that research looking at the microbiome is still in its infancy.

We still don’t really know what constitutes ‘good’ gut bacteria. There are more strains of bacteria than there are Twitter accounts dedicated to deriding Trump. Scientists don’t even know if they’re categorising the bacteria in meaningful ways to begin with. They’re onto a good thing, but let’s not kid ourselves, they’re still wading through a pool of confusion.  

The more we learn, the more we learn we don’t know.

Scientists observed that taking probiotics, following a course of antibiotics, can prevent antibiotic-induced diarrhoea in certain individuals. This effect was seen in 1 in 13 people. Beneficial for those few people, but not exactly ground-breaking.

Based on this slightly reduced likelihood of diarrhoea (and the countless theoretical benefits of improving gut bacteria), probiotics have taken the world by storm. But is this correct? Are the health benefits of taking probiotics as real and exciting as they seem?

Are probiotics causing us more harm than good?

A new study gives us reason to, as Ice Cube put it, ‘Chickity-check yo self before you wreck yo self, because shotgun bullets [probiotics] are bad for your health’. Perhaps that’s a overly dramatic. Still, we’re spending lots of money on probiotics with the intention of helping our gut, not hindering it.  

The study found that probiotic supplementation following antibiotic use, delayed the recovery of the original gut microbiome. It took up to 6 months for the gut bacteria to fully recover, whereas in the non-probiotic group, recovery took place in only 3 weeks.

We simply don’t know whether or not the delayed recovery is of concern. The point is, the wider effects of probiotic use hasn’t been investigated thoroughly. Harmful things can happen when we treat symptoms (e.g. diarrhoea) instead of treating an individual as a unique, interconnected and complex system.

Fecal transplants hold far more promise than probiotics.

In the same study, a sample of poo was taken from participants and transplanted back into their own guts after a course of antibiotics. The microbiome made a near-complete recover in just a few days following administration of the fecal transplant.

The benefit of a fecal transplant taken from a healthy individual, is that it can provide a sample of the true diversity of bacteria that would naturally occur within the human gut. This complexity cannot be synthesised. Not yet, anyway. 

The potential uses for fecal transplants are very exciting. Imagine taking a sample of your gut in your 20s and repopulating your gut in your 70s. Imagine the potential to combat diseases such as IBS, Crohn’s, depression and anxiety with a little bit of poo.

The bottom line is: if you have taken antibiotics or just want to promote a healthy gut microbiome, the best thing you can do is eat plenty of fibre. One thing we do know is that fibre feeds good gut bacteria and reduces cancer and heart disease risks. A diverse range of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains will allow your healthy bacteria to thrive.

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