Somewhere along the last couple decades of searching for life’s most potent elixir, probiotics raised its hand and volunteered as tribute. You’ve got a stomach ache? Take some probiotics. Allergies? Take some probiotics. Depression and anxiety? Try therapy, but if that doesn’t work, take some probiotics. My point is that in 2018, you’d be hard pressed to find a doctor who isn’t slinging the benefits of probiotics in the same way a car salesman tries to sell you on getting the extended warranty. Throw in all the people who are choosing to take them like multivitamins for general “wellness” reasons, and you’ll see why last year alone, the global market for probiotics reached nearly $46 billion (and is set to reach $64 billion by 2022).
So what are probiotics? They’re basically live bacteria and yeasts that, under the right circumstances, can be beneficial to your digestive system because they help balance the amount of good and bad bacteria that already exists in your body. “Among other things, probiotics help send food through your gut by affecting nerves that control gut movement,” reports WebMD. For that reason, a doctor might prescribe a patient with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) — whose intestinal muscles produce weak contractions — with a regimen of probiotic supplements to help move their food along the digestive tract. And hey, who among us couldn’t use a little extra gut health, amiright?
But like most everything in this life that sounds too good to be true, probiotics, too, deserve to be ripped to the ground and unmasked to reveal their inner rat poison.
Okay, I got carried away. Probiotics are actually pretty good at what they do — they certainly won’t kill you (at least not that we know of yet), and by most measures, they can be helpful in solving some digestive problems. But according to one new study, overdoing them could also be turning you into a less intelligent version of yourself. Put more simply — in case you’re double fisting kombucha right now: Chugging too many probiotics may be turning you into a moron.
“In a published study of 30 patients, the 22 who reported problems like confusion and difficulty concentrating, in addition to their gas and bloating, were all taking probiotics, some several varieties [including probiotic pills],” reported Science Daily.
Satish S.C. Rao, director of neurogastroenterology/motility for the Digestive Health Clinical Research Center at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, and the study’s lead author, tells me that they originally decided to look into the connection between the brain and probiotics after noticing multiple patients — all of whom were taking probiotics — complaining of gas, bloating and unexplained brain fogginess.
When Rao and his team looked further inside the patients’ small intestines, they found large colonies of bacteria breeding in the small bowel. This resulted in high levels of D-lactic acid being produced by the bacteria lactobacillus’ fermentation of sugars in the patients’ food, per the same article in Science Daily. Because our bodies have limited clearance ability for D-lactic acid, when it accumulates, the brain becomes foggy until the kidneys are able to clear the excess D-lactic acid from our bodies.
Rao and his team found that some patients had two to three times the normal amount of the substance in their blood. In some cases, the patients said their brain fogginess — which Rao characterized as “mental cloudiness, confusion, impaired judgment, difficulty with concentration and poor short term memory” — lasted anywhere from a half hour to several hours. In some cases, the brain fogginess was so severe that the patients were forced to quit their jobs because they couldn’t function effectively and were making too many errors, says Rao.
“Probiotics should be treated as a drug, not as a food supplement,” Rao told Science Daily, suggesting that many people self-prescribe the live bacteria to treat their digestive issues.
Rao concedes that some patients with diarrheal diseases could benefit from short courses of probiotics, but that it’s still better to get good stomach bacteria the all natural way. “It’s best to take natural probiotics in foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and other fermented food,” says Rao. “Alternatively, prebiotics that promote growth of normal healthy colon flora, such as chicory, fruits, fiber, onions, garlic, are best for healthy folks.”
Basically, don’t self-prescribe a regimen of probiotics just because you’re inside of a vitamin store and you feel your stomach grumble.