Probiotics Primer

It seems you can’t pick up any newspaper or health magazine lately without coming across a mention of probiotics. They’re known to clear up upset stomachs. They show some effectiveness against inflammatory bowel diseases. They decrease risk factors for thrombosis. They strengthen your immune system and make vaccines more effective. They hold promise in preventing and treating colorectal cancer. And on and on…

Many fermenters know that probiotics are live microorganisms that you introduce to your gut in order to obtain some health benefit. They’re definitely not a new innovation. It’s estimated that humans have been ingesting probiotics for more than 1.5 million years. (That’s how long we’ve known about lactic acid fermentation as a way of preserving foods.)

Despite the clear benefits of consuming these helpful bacteria, they are conspicuously absent from most people’s diets in North America. Unless, of course, you regularly consume fermented foods!

If you want to know the full story, I’d suggest picking up one of the many good books on the topic of probiotics. I’ve just finished a 4-book probiotics reading spree myself – the brief reviews are below.

Probiotics are a hot topic of study in labs all around the world – but you’ll note that these four books were all published several years ago so they don’t contain every bit of up-to-the-minute scientific research. Nevertheless, they can give a good overview. And one more note: some of the books are weighted toward recommending probiotic supplements rather than probiotic foods, since supplements give you maximum control over the specific strains of bacteria you are consuming.

I’d recommend the books in the order below:

1. The Probiotics Revolution (2007) by Gary Huffnagle with Sarah Wernick

Huffnagle, a professor at University of Michigan Medical Center, authored this book with the help of a professional writer. As a result, this book struck a good balance between readability and scientific detail. It covered everything from the biology of the immune system (likening lymphocytes to “officers” and phagocytes to “foot soldiers”) to practical advice on consuming probiotic foods. I trusted the information, since it stuck to the evidence from scientific studies. This book is good for both the health professional and the average person who wants a science-based overview of probiotics.

2. Probiotic Rescue (2008) by Allison Tannis

This book was a straight-to-the-point scientific overview of why we should all be ingesting probiotics. The bulk of the book covered the evidence for how probiotics improve specific health conditions: diarrhea, infant colic, irritable bowel syndrome, irritable bowel diseases, allergies, and more. Heavy on biological detail and lighter on practical advice, this book is ideal for health professionals and the science-minded. If you are interested in knowing the unique benefits of different probiotics –  listed by genus, species, and strain – this book is for you.

3. The Gut Flush Plan (2009) by Anne Louise Gittleman (author of the bestselling Fat Flush Plan)

I had this book on the table during dinner and my husband said, “Gross! Can’t you put that away while we’re eating?” Despite the somewhat unpleasant image brought to mind by its title, The Gut Flush Plan contained interesting practical information on overall gut health. Rather than being exclusively focused on probiotics, this book detailed what it considered to be a comprehensive “cleansing program” for ameliorating gut-related health problems. Gittleman’s book appeared extensively researched, but was far from having scientific evidence to back up every one one of its claims. (Case in point: the sidebar on how to give yourself a coffee enema definitely raised my “quack” radar.) The ideal reader of this book, I think, is someone with major gut issues who wants a step-by-step plan for addressing their problem right away. According to the online scuttlebutt, the supplements and foods recommended in this book – probiotics and a host of other things – can get expensive. But even if you have no intention of following the plan, the book can serve as an interesting informational resource.

4. The Wonder of Probiotics (2007) by John R. Taylor and Deborah Mitchell

This book confused me with its opening story, which essentially said: “Aren’t probiotics great! I went to China, took probiotic supplements, and didn’t even have to use diarrhea medications!” I was left thinking, “So what?” But the book went on to offer a decent amount of practical advice; it provided a list of disorders and a “probiotic program” for addressing each one. In going through this book, I found its readability to be inconsistent: sometimes it reported personal anecdotes in a very accessible and lighthearted manner, and other times it said things like, “Lactulose is a semisynthetic prebiotic that is composed of galactose and fructose,” full stop. Overall, the book had value as an information source but was conspicuously light on scientific references. I’d say it’s best for those who want a very quick overview of probiotics from a naturopathic perspective.

This post originally appeared on Kris Campbell’s blog: 

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