Why Probiotics are not the answer to healthy digestion

Are you tired of hearing about the microbiome?  About probiotics?  I’m not.  I’m fascinated to watch our understanding of the body change and evolve.

I have a few things to say about probiotic supplements.

In recent years probiotic supplements have become  a panacea among alternative health consumers.  Suggested for everything from depression to diarrhea, probiotic supplements are often seen as the key to health. 

Certainly, the research on probiotic bacteria is compelling. You’ll know from reading through my blog posts that I recommend them frequently for both parents and children.  But there is an important subtlety to understand. 

Research is not showing us that probiotic bacteria will fix all your health problems. 

Research  is showing us that poor digestive health commonly lies at the roots of myriad illnesses, and that probiotic bacteria is one important player.   

That subtlety is an important distinction to understand.

Probiotic supplements are only one part of a much, much bigger picture when it comes to digestive health.

If it’s truly root cause resolution you’re after, if you want to move forward with your health, not surprisingly you will not get the results you are after by popping a pill.  You’ll need to look a little deeper at the whole package of healthy digestion.

Here are some very important players in digestive health that work alongside your probiotic supplement.

Enzymes

These little proteins act as catalysts in our bodies.  They are work the horses… lurking behind the scenes of every single chemical reaction that happens in the body.  Without enzymes, body function would grind to a screeching halt. 

Digestive enzymes are the little guys that break apart long chains of dietary carbohydrates, fats and proteins into simple components that our bodies can absorb and use. Furthermore, healing compounds found in foods like lignans and allicin can not be freed and absorbed without enzymes.

If digestive enzymes are lacking, undigested food passes through the small intestine and into the colon where it is left to ferment and stimulate inflammation and sometimes activate the immune and neurological systems.  

Get enzymes in your diet from fresh, raw foods like ripe local fruits and vegetables, sprouts and fermented foods. Sometimes a supplement can help too, but be certain it is high quality and is the most appropriate enzyme for you.

Liver Support

The liver is involved in digestive health mostly because it creates bile which is needed to kick start the process of fat digestion. If fat hasn’t been properly prepared for digestion by bile, our fat-digesting enzyme, lipase, can’t do its job.

The way to support your liver is to unburden it – it already has too much to do. Making a few minor diet/lifestyle changes will free up its energy so it can do a good job at producing bile.

Stick to clean and healthy fats like avocado, coconut, fish and olive oil; get enough sleep and reduce stress; remove chemicals from your house and from your life; help it remove toxins from the body (one of its many jobs) by getting enough fibre (see below); use lemon, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, beets, cilantro and parsley, eggs and avocado – all have been shown to support liver function; keep your blood sugar stable.

Phytonutrients

Isoflavones, glucosinolates, carotenoids, and polyphenols are examples of phytonutrient families.  These chemicals, found in plants, play a variety of roles in our health including modulating inflammation, supporting endocrine function, supporting mucosal growth(1), inhibiting cancer cell growth (2), stimulating digestive juices, and binding to free radicals.

Get phytonutrients in your diet by eating a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables and spices. 

Fibre

Fibre  is most well known for its role as an  “intestinal broom”, helping to keep bowel function smooth and regular and working to flush waste and toxins and cholesterol out of our bodies. 

Indeed, fibre does that, but recent research has uncovered another important role of fibre. Because it resists digestion (we lack the enzymes needed to break it apart), fibre makes it all the way to the colon – which happens to be the most active part of our bodies in terms of microbes.  Once in the colon, fibre feeds those microbes and is transformed into the short chain fatty acids butyrate, acetate and propionate. Butyrate in particular nourishes the lining of the gut (3).  

Without fibre and butyrate, we can not have a healthy colon.

Get your fibre from fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains and seeds if tolerated.

Water

60% of our body is water and the mucosal membrane of our digestive tract is only one part of our body that needs to be well hydrated. Every single cell of our body requires water and even the space between our cells needs to be hydrated.   

Over half of American children are dehydrated (4) which can lead to toxic build up, constipation, intestinal inflammation and oxidative stress. If you want a panacea, if you want the make only one simple change, it’s to drink more water.  Pure, clean, water.

L-Glutamine

This is the most abundant amino acid in the body. It is a primary fuel for the enterocytes – the little cells lining the digestive tract. Healthy enterocytes are critical for a healthy digestive system.  The body makes glutamine from glutamic acid. Best dietary sources are meat and some beans. Cabbage and bone broth are other good sources. It is also an easy one to supplement.

So My Point Is…

If we don’t digest our food well, we can’t get the nutrients we need to thrive, we stimulate inflammation and we start to change how our body functions. This is why so many illnesses including diabetes, obesity, mental illness and heart disease are now being traced back, in part, to a poorly functioning digestive system.  Certainly, understanding digestion and the gut microbiome is a game changer when it comes to health and illness.

While probiotic supplements can be very helpful at relieving symptoms and helping the microbiome to rebalance, they are not the only tool we need and they will not get to the root of poor digestive health alone.  Eating a whole food diet that includes ample amounts of  fresh plant food full of colour and flavour is also key.

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References:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK54091/

http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/ben/cpd/2012/00000018/00000026/art00008

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3070119/

http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2015.302572%

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About Jess Sherman, M.Ed, R.H.N

Jess is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist™ and Family Health Expert, specializing in brain health & resilience for kids. She is the author of Raising Resilience: Take the stress out of feeding your family & love your life, a mother and an advocate for children’s health. Her book and online resources have helped families all over the world improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, autism and mood disorders by fitting the food and feeding piece into their health puzzles. She is the 2019 recipient of the CSNNAA award for Clinical Excellence for her work helping families get healthier, and she continues to work at bringing an understanding of the power of good nutrition to the mainstream conversation about children’s mental health, learning, and overall resilience through her blog, courses and as a  contributor to print and online magazines. You can reach Jess at www.jesssherman.com 

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