Designer Poop: What’s the Deal With Prebiotics and Probiotics? [What they are, how to eat them and why you should]

by Charlotte on April 23, 2013 · 19 comments

Unicorns obviously have very healthy gut bacteria.

Hospitals with their life, death, and strange-smell zeitgeist have been the setting for several major revelations in my life (not the least of which is that nutritionists consider Malt-o-Meal a “solid food” but Jell-O is a “liquid”) and this time it was no different. My 3rd son, just nine months old at the time, hung limply in my arms as nurses and doctors buzzed around us. There was no waiting for us in the the waiting room when I brought my baby in, nearly unconscious with a fever of 107. The triage nurse took one look at my son and half the night staff descended on us. Weirdly all I could think about was the beginning of that Nicholas Cage/Meg Ryan flick City of Angels where the least sexy angel ever, Seth (Cage), escorts a little girl in yellow footie pajamas to heaven after she dies of a fever. The opening sequence ends with the anguished wail of her mother. To this day I hate that movie. (Although Meg Ryan was adorable. I miss that Meg Ryan.)

Over the five days my son was in the hospital, it was established that he had an infection but no one knew what it was or how he had contracted it. We went through antibiotic after antibiotic until at last we were down to the nuclear option: an IV drip of the most potent antibiotic available. If this didn’t work, the doctors told us, there wasn’t anything else we could do except try to support his body as it fought off the infection itself. Thankfully it did work, drip by drip, as I held him to my chest and rocked back and forth – the only position he would sleep in – and simultaneously prayed and watched Home and Garden Television on mute (not as mutually exclusive as one might think – you see a lot of God’s humor in Real Estate Wars). My baby recovered and I thanked God again for not putting me on earth in any century prior to this one. (Seriously, have you ever counted how many people you know would be dead without modern medicine? Half my girlfriends would have died in childbirth.) I learned two life-changing things from this experience:

1. Life is so so fragile. Infinitely more than we imagine. One morning my baby was fine, if a little cranky. That evening he was at death’s door. Living and dying depends on just a few degrees of heat. And yet the capacity of the human body to repair itself and to recover is nothing short of miraculous.

2. I discovered probiotics. This revelation may not seem as important as the first one – it’s certainly not as dramatic! – but it has been life-saving in its own right. When we took the baby home, we had to keep him on the nuclear antibiotic for a month to make sure the infection was really gone. Any of you that have taken antibiotics for an extended period of time will know what havoc it wreaks on your system. My baby immediately started with severe diarrhea that almost put him back in the hospital because the antibiotics had wiped out all the good bacteria in his little gut. (He “squished” every time I picked up. Like a water squirty toy! But it wasn’t water! Parenting is full of fun surprises.) The doctor gave us some packets of probiotics – good bacteria – in powder form that we sprinkled in his food to replenish his colon. Within a day the diarrhea was gone.

You know how I feel about extraneous supplements but ever since that experience I have kept a supply of probiotics on hand and give it to all my kids whenever they have a tummy ailment. Jelly Bean got her first dose from my breast milk – all mom juice comes loaded with probiotics! – but has had the powder sprinkled in her food since she was just a few months old and has never had a bad bout of diarrhea. While I go back and forth about different vitamins and supplements – I haven’t taken a multi since that research came out showing that people who did lived 15 years less than people who didn’t – probiotics are the one supplement that I love whole-heartedly. I don’t give my kids probiotics every day, nor do I take one daily, but we do use them on occasion and we eat a lot of foods containing both pre- and pro-biotics. (Let me insert here that I am no doctor nor any kind of medical professional and everything in this post should be taken as just my experience and not as medical advice.)

What Are Probiotics and Prebiotics?

Briefly, probiotics are “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” The most common types are “Lactobacillus orBifidobacterium. Within each group, there are different species (for example, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidus), and within each species, different strains (or varieties). A few common probiotics, such as Saccharomyces boulardii, are yeasts, which are different from bacteria.” (Charlotte’s note: Aaaand you win the award for comma abuse! Which is all good since I’m a serial abuses of the en-dash.)

Prebiotics are undigestible (to humans) food parts that encourage the growth of probiotics. Basically they’re Old Country Buffet for germs.

Where Can You Find Them?

Probiotics have been used since ancient times as they are the active agents in fermented foods and cultured dairy products like yogurt, kefir, miso, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi etc. (a.k.a. all the stinky foods.) While food sources can be a great way to get your probiotics, sometimes you need more or at least a more consistent strain and that’s where the pill form comes in. In a previous post people have asked me for a specific product recommendation. I have been getting good results with the generic probiotic at Target. It’s just a few bucks a bottle, I keep it in my fridge and I love it. That said, I primarily use it to support already healthy immune systems. If you have greater needs (or just want to cover more bases) you can get a broader spectrum supplement. In the past I’ve used ReNew Life’s Ultimate Flora and have been impressed with their quality. (Not trying to sell you anything! And no, they’re not paying me! Neither is Target! I only mention the brand names because so many of you have asked for recommendations!)

Prebiotics are found in a variety of soluble-fiber-rich foods including whole grains (although their bioavailability is of some debate right now), jicama, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onions, leeks and the like. (P.S. Never tried jicama or Jerusalem artichokes? You must!! SO yummy. And crunchy.)

Benefits

Probiotics are not just good for tummy troubles. Research has shown that these good germs help with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease, h Pylori infections (the bacteria that causes some types of ulcers), tooth decay and gum health, vaginal and urinary tract infections, and some respiratory and skin infections. There was even a study that showed that post-partum women who took a probiotic supplement had lost more weight at 6 months than those who didn’t. Plus there are a whole host of poop studies that I won’t go into right now but show promising results for everything from mood to drug addiction!

Risks

Personally I’ve never noticed any negative side effects, even when I took several in one day. (Making pricey poop is apparently a hobby of mine!) But I did have a personal trainer once tell me that he got diarrhea from OD’ing on probiotics. Either way the most common listed side effects from probiotics and prebiotics – whether in food or pill form – are gas and bloating.

So how do you get your probiotics – do you have a favorite stinky food or supplement to recommend? Have you tried jicamas and Jerusalem artichokes? What’s the weirdest veggie you’ve ever eaten??

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Marz April 24, 2013 at 12:13 am

Good article. The ‘research came out’ link is not working however..its 404′d.

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Alyssa (azusmom) April 24, 2013 at 12:25 am

I like jicama!
I also like Kombucha drinks. Fizzy! But be careful: drinking a 2-serving bottle all at once can have you running for the restroom quickly and frequently.
I know I need to supplement my probiotics. Being the nervous Nelly-type, my tummy frequently gets out of whack. Plus there are all those other lovely benefits. If I can just remember to actually take them…
SO glad your li’l guy is OK, all these years later!

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Abby April 24, 2013 at 7:51 am

I use supplements in pill form to get my probiotics in. I love yogurt, but don’t want to eat it every day. I usually take one pill in the morning and one in the evening with my other supplements.

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ALLEN April 24, 2013 at 8:55 am

I AM A BIG FAN OF TAKING NATURAL HERB SUPPLEMENTS AND I AM REGULAR USER OF METAMUCIL TO KEEP A CONSTANT INFLUX OF FIBER IN MY DIGESTIVE TRACT.
YOGURT IS ALSO A GREAT CHOICE. STAY NATURAL, ALWAYS AVOID DOCTOR’S SYNTHETIC PRESCRIPTIONS WITH ALL KINDS OF STEROIDS AND UNKNOWN SUBSTANCES GOING INTO YOUR BODY.
http://www.helpmakesuccess.com/DIGESTIVE HEALTH

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Amanda April 24, 2013 at 9:15 am

I’m in serious gut repair mode and have been taking a probiotic twice a day to try to get my digestive system back in order. It’s been about two months and I’d say it’s better but still not great…trying to be patient

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Abby April 24, 2013 at 9:24 am

I really should pick up some probiotics. When I’m stressed my stomach tends to get all out of whack so, unsurprisingly, lately it’s been icky. Maybe those would help. And I love an excuse to go to Target!

Also, best salad: jicama, peas, and chopped red bell pepper and green onions with rice vinegar. Yum!

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Heather @ Bake, Run, Live April 24, 2013 at 10:58 am

I take probiotics in pill form. I started a few years ago when I had to take antibiotics (they always give me a yeast infection). I like yogurt, but can’t eat it everyday, so the pills come in handy.

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Janet April 24, 2013 at 1:01 pm

I went to a fermentation party in Brooklyn, and it was exactly what the stereotype would be. Not positive, but I think the guy running the party was wearing a skirt. I was totally under-dressed in my Land’s End cotton sweater and jeans — we had just been hiking, so that’s my crunchy cred.

It was at least 50 people there, who brought kombucha, water kefir, milk kefir, homemade beer, sourdough bread, beet kvass, sauerkraut, kim chi, homemade yogurt, and I’m sure many substances I’ve never heard of. I brought home a kombucha culture and a jun culture, and gave out water kefir grains (snatched up in literally 60 seconds). My jun — fermented green tea + honey — might have just finished brewing. The kombucha didn’t seem to work. Frankly I’m not so excited about drinking carb/alcohol calories, so I haven’t tried it yet. Hoping to get some milk kefir grains, so my ferments will at least have protein.

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Jennifer @ Chocolate Chips & Tricep Dips April 24, 2013 at 4:57 pm

My daughter was also in the hospital and on various antibiotics for several weeks. That’s when we started probiotics. Now my four children each take one daily. I’ve read that they’re good for the immune system in general. One thing I definitely noticed with my oldest after she started them is that her fevers were lower. She used to always run super-high fevers (over 104 was not uncommon for her). Now her fevers don’t generally go over 102.

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TITLE Boxing Club Blue Springs April 24, 2013 at 6:25 pm

I have been hearing more and more about probiotics. Thank you for summing up what they are and why to they are important.

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TITLE Boxing Club Farmington Hills April 24, 2013 at 6:32 pm

This is a great topic address. Especially since these are becoming a huge thing to talk about.

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Katie April 24, 2013 at 6:36 pm

I always have probiotics in my fridge for times when the old belly starts acting up. Everytime I’ve had to resort to taking them, I’ve improved in mere days. I can’t take them daily though, because they seem to have the *ahem* opposite affect. Apparently I have quite the Goldilocks of stomach flora – it has to be just right or I tip to either side of the constipation/diarrhea spectrum. TMI?

I’ve had jicama (LOVE IT!), jerusalem artichoke (Like, but not love enough to buy or grow) and kohlrabi. The only reason I tried kohlrabi was because my mom bought some and grew them in her garden, thinking that they were my beloved KABOCHA squash. Ha! It was hysterical when she brught them to me, huge smile, thinking she was about to win best mom ever award. They are so not even close to the same veggie!

I make it a point to try every veggie I can, especially if I haven’t had one ever. I think the weirdest is celeriac. I also own the book The Art of Fermentation and I brew kombucha, make water kefir (thanks to Jenn and I hear she gave you some too!), make sauerkraut and dine on kimchi very frequently.

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OZ Preventive Medicine April 24, 2013 at 6:49 pm

This pictures is interesting, but, nonetheless, it is an important post.

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Kim April 24, 2013 at 7:20 pm

I just recently started taking probiotic (thanks to reading one of your previous posts).
I’m taking a supplement right now and it seems to be helping!!
Thanks for always having such informative posts!

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Mary K April 24, 2013 at 9:34 pm

I started my kids on probiotics pretty early on, but only on a periodic basis. When my son’s allergies and eczema crept up around 2 years old, the doc put him on zyrtec. Fast foward a year and my constantly grouchy son had suddenly developed a severe stutter. Hmmm. Finally, I weaned him off the zyrtec and put him on a daily dose of probiotics, vit C (a natural antihistamine) and DHA. This combo has done a great job at controlling his allergies and eczema (in addition to avoiding most dairy), and his stutter has virtually disappeared, and most importantly he’s in a good mood! If we forget his vitamins and probiotics he is more itchy and sneezy, so it’s a must for him. Love my probiotics!

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M. Lindsay April 24, 2013 at 9:55 pm

I use Genestra HMF Intensive Probiotics. They are amazing, and have made my life so much better. I honestly don’t know why more people aren’t probiotic-ing.

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Linda April 26, 2013 at 7:05 am

I do take probiotics although not at regular intervals….great post…looks like it should be part of my diet.

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Sean May 2, 2013 at 3:33 am

Remember, probiotics are living organisms and can easily be destroyed by heat and highly acidic environments – for example an unhealthy gut. Prebiotics provide the nutrients your good bacteria need to survive. Its a more effective strategy to support your own natural probiotics with prebiotics. Good sources are raw veggies and fruits such as artichokes and kiwifruit.

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