Probiotics: Go With Your Gut

Jane Birkin
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English actress and singer, Jane Birkin, 18th May 1969. (Photo by Victor Blackman/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Jane Birkin

English actress and singer, Jane Birkin, 18th May 1969. (Photo by Victor Blackman/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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I’m not sure Nietzsche actually said it, but it pops up frequently on the @NietzscheQuotes Twitter account I follow: “The abdomen is the reason man does not easily take himself for a god.”

The truth is real. To keep it in the philosophical realm of for a minute before we get to actual digestion, I also find myself thinking about Aristotle’s concept of the golden mean—the idea that extremes found on either side of a good, normal thing can become problematic. A classic example: movies. Watch too few and your favorite director is Michael Bay. Watch too many, and you start speaking in Lynchian non-sequiturs, becoming very hard to talk to at parties. Just the right amount of well-curated movies, though, and you’ve got a few good references in your back pocket when you need them without being smug about it.

So if we take this model and apply it to the digestive tract and its possible and inherent woes (where one extreme would be an excess of production and the other extreme a total lack), I didn’t end up the perfect mean. More like my gut was left to wander between these two unhappy lands in a bloated, rumbling purgatory.

That is, until probiotics.

It started with pills—a gateway drug. The first ones I saw were advertised in-between Maury episodes— Culturelle (which would be a great name for a young women’s magazine) and that yogurt Jamie Lee Curtis likes. They're the probiotic options you can get in any grocery store.

Then you progress to the more health-foody ones you can only get in a store that smells like wheatgrass pulp and dirt. The really good kinds are the ones kept behind the cashier’s counter in their own little cheese cave/mini fridge. And please don’t try to tell me they drove here from Mexico in a 125-degree semi truck—I really don’t need to hear that.

The probiotic mainlining doesn’t stop there. Now, as you know, I make my own kombucha, and I also make my own sauerkraut. I made kimchi once so acidic my tongue was numb. Anything that’s fermented, I’m into. That includes sourdough bread (although that’s not really helpful).

Of course, as with all the comforting developing sciences and their devices, actual research is split on the issue of exactly how much probiotic you should use. There’s a new faction that whole-heartedly believes in the efficacy of them, going back to a kind of microbial atomism—that we’re all just walking appellations of these tiny atomic lives, our bodies just a hive of their current activity. This isn’t just me talking— this is The New Yorker, too.

Sure, probiotics have helped me, but they’re not the only variable in my equation—I’ve changed up my diet, stress levels, and sleep patterns, too. How much of my current abdominal success could I ascribe to probiotics? I spoke with Dr. Lisa Ganjhu, gastroenterologist and clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU'S Langone Medical Center, for a more official take than mid-afternoon commercials.

First, the basics: “We all have our own thumbprint of microbiomes, and everyone’s microbiome in their gut is subtly different,” she said. Probiotics work “by realigning the digestive tract’s bacteria to help with digestion and to break down food. It’s another army to help extract nutrients and digest food,” Dr. Ganjhu added. They may be the first army to actually be greeted as liberators.

Of course, once you feel more in control of your body (as I did with probiotics), there’s always the chance that the power might go to your head (as well as your gut). Once I started getting a good GI thing going, I started overanalyzing—the thought always, “Wait, am I still doing OK?” I was desperate to maintain how great I was feeling. If there is one, this seems to be the only dark side of probiotics.

I mentioned this to Dr. Ganjhu in what I thought was just a small aside. Turns out, mental health and instability is as major a component in GI troubles as food intolerance. She introduced me to the term “mind-gut axis,” which sounded very namaste-and-crystals to me at first, but it made sense the more she spoke. “If you’re going to keep focusing on your digestive tract—every little gurgle and burble, wondering if that’s a problem,” Dr Ganjhu explained, “that anxiety just provokes more GI hormones, which causes more anxiety and more GI symptoms, and the whole thing just keeps feeding on itself,” which is not what that mercenary army of flora is there to do. “I tell people who are gut-sensitive and who have that mind-gut axis to re-channel their energy away from their digestive tract because they’re not supposed to be focused on that.” So it turns out that the benefits of probiotics aren’t all in my head—but possibly the causes of all my gastrointestinal problems are.

Also worth noting: If you feel like you’re doing fine, you are. Keep moving, nothing to see here in this probiotic mini-fridge. “Not everyone needs probiotics. If you’re happy, healthy, not bloated, feel great, there is absolutely no need to take a probiotic.” Dr. Ganjhu said. “You only take an additional probiotic because you’re not feeling well—that usually means your microbiome is just off' due to certain foods, alcohol, stresses, antibiotics, or travel. Probiotics are not a permanent cure, and they’re not the only component necessary for a happy GI—water, fiber, and healthy food and thoughts are important, too. I’ve tried going without probiotics, but I’m much happier with them. It’s been several years and probably too much money, but the peace of mind (and gut) is worth it. Just ask Jamie Lee.

—Trace Barnhill

Image via Getty.

Probiotics for your face exist, too. Read about what probiotic skincare can do for your skin.