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What are Probiotics and What do They do?

Prior to learning about eating plant-based I (Dr Robyn) had chronic issues with my gut. I told my doctor on more than one occasion that I felt like my GI tract just “wasn’t working.” I was bloated (to the point of looking second trimester pregnant) more often than not and my gut just generally hurt. I tried everything.

I took daily probiotics and a fiber supplement (recommended by my doctor), pills for lactose intolerance, laxatives, antacids and just about anything else I could find that claimed to help with GI issues. Nothing worked. I was miserable.

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But when we started shifting our diet towards eating more plants, I noticed an interesting pattern. When I ate plants, I would feel better. When I ate animal products, I would go back to being miserable a couple of days later. I stopped taking everything but the probiotics and the fiber supplement. The pattern remained.

It was with some trepidation that I then decided to stop taking the probiotics. Again, nothing changed. Eat plants and everything was good. Indulge in meat products and… Not good!

white capsules on a smooth wood surfaceWhen our diet was about 85% plant-based I got brave and decided to wean myself off of the fiber supplement. I was pleasantly surprised. My plumbing worked fine, as long as I didn’t try to put cheese through it (that was the only animal product we were still eating). It didn’t take me long to decide that my gut bacteria REALLY wanted me to eat plants.

So, what are probiotics and why does eating plants make them so happy?

Where do Probiotics Come From?

Babies are born with a sterile gut. Those born vaginally pick up their first probiotic (bacteria) on their way out. However, those born via C-section get there first probiotics from the hands and clothing of the hospital staff who handle them. It should come as no surprise that vaginally born babies have a better start to their gut flora. Also, breast fed babies and healthier guts than formula fed.

While it’s true, how you got into the world matters, you have A LOT of control over how healthy your gut is based on the food you put in your mouth.

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Where Are Probiotics in the Body?

Probiotics (gut flora or gut bacteria) live mostly in your large intestine/colon.

What are Probiotics?

Good and helpful bacteria and yeast that help with metabolic function.

What do Probiotics do?

Our gut bacteria are responsible for several things that maintain our overall health. Among them, making some vitamins and turning fiber into short-chain fats that feed our gut wall and support our immune system.

Are Probiotic Supplements Worth Taking?

We don’t recommend it. For one, for a probiotic supplement to be useful it has to live through your stomach acid and small intestine. Both of which are designed to be a strong defense against outside invaders.

Secondly, all of the available literature on probiotic supplements was done by or funded by the supplement industry. That means there is a large publication bias. They only share the studies whose findings are good for business and the current literature can’t speak to safety.

One study that was done testing the use of probiotics to treat pancreatitis (it worked in rats) actually ended up killing twice as many participants as the placebo. So, while it used to be thought that probiotics at worst were a waste of money, there is now some evidence that they might be harmful.

Finally, as is the case with all supplements, probiotics are not regulated in any way.  

How Can You Get Probiotics Then?

If for some reason (like you had to take a strong antibiotic) your gut bacteria is in need of some help, we recommend making your own sauerkraut. It’s really easy.

Chop a head of cabbage into thin slices, massage about a tablespoon of salt into it until the juices are released (the longer you massage the more juice you’ll get), pack it into a glass jar (I use a Costco sized olive jar), place a couple of cabbage leaves (saved from the outside of the cabbage) on top and use a ziplock bag full of water to push it down under the liquid.

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If there isn’t enough liquid to cover the cabbage, add filtered water (I’m never patient enough to massage it long enough to get that much liquid). Set the jar in a dark corner on your counter, cover with a towel (to keep the light out) and wait a couple of weeks. And like magic you’ll have your very own yummy probiotic.

What Do Prebiotics Do?

Prebiotics are new to the supplement game. Basically, they are the food that probiotics eat. Prebiotics are attached to fiber (found only in plant-based foods and lost if you juice). Every type of plant has a little different prebiotic in it. So, eat a variety of plants and you’ll feed your variety of gut bacteria. Taking a prebiotic supplement is silly and unnecessary.

How Your Gut Flora Gets Damaged

Taking an antibiotic will kill your gut flora. Not 100% gone, but enough to create gut issues. If you have your appendix there are some schools of thought that believe it is designed to house a tiny bit of your probiotic to be able to recolonize your colon once the onslaught is over.

Another thing that can lead to unhealthy gut bacteria is eating animal products. The bacteria required to process animal protein and fat is “stronger” than that needed to process plants. All your bacteria is warring for space in your large intestine. So “stronger” means it can become overgrown and push out the other bacteria.

That is one of the reasons switching back and forth between eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) and eating Whole-Food Plant-Based (WFPB) can cause gut distress and why some people thing vegetables “don’t agree” with them.    

What Next?

Option 1 - If you are a member, join the conversation with your thoughts or comments on the community page. We would love to hear your thoughts about probiotics!

Option 2 - If you're not a member yet, join us now to get support from us (Dr. Robyn and Russ) and other members who are also on their journey to better health. All journeys are better when you have someone to share it with.


Dr Robyn is a former competitive volleyball player turned psychologist with continuing education in nutrition. Russ is a former competitive bodybuilder and trainer on the Mr. Olympia Tour. They are the co-founders of Whole Food Muscle and the authors of How to Feed a Human The Whole Food Muscle Way. To work with them one on one to improve your health and fitness or to have them speak at your event or organization email them at Health@RnRJourney.com.

Becoming a member gives you access to our online community where you get support from Dr Robyn, Russ and other members who are also on their journey to better health. All journeys are better when you have someone to share it with.

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Russ and Dr Robyn,"

"You changed my life and my husband's. His cholesterol has been cut in half. We both have lost about 12 pounds and feel terrific. We don't miss meat, fish, eggs or yogurt or cheese. Thank you so much for all you are doing for the world. We too thought we were eating healthy but couldn't lose weight even though we exercised a lot. Until we changed what we ate. We are truly grateful. I loved your Christmas message about what to say to those comments people make when you say you eat Plant Based.

Thank you again."

Nancy and Mark Hetterly

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