I know all the things I'm supposed to be doing for my health. I could spend my entire waking life doing them if I chose. Do some light yoga in the morning, followed by an elegant cup of green tea, preferably matcha. Eat a single organic apple as breakfast, or maybe some organic, free-range eggs. Go on a healthy run afterward, followed by a protein-heavy lunch with a salad. Take a multivitamin. Spend some time in a sauna, then get a deep-tissue massage. More matcha. The "shoulds" go on.
I'm not going to do all of that, mostly because I have other interests and responsibilities, but I always like the idea of being healthier. I mostly maintain a gym membership and eat a lot of vegetables. Like many Americans, I'm uninsured, but unlike many Americans, I'm in relatively good health, so as long as I don't break a bone or have a mysterious illness pop up, it has not yet been a gigantic problem. I'm lucky to live in a community where fresh produce is accessible, and I live close enough to my part-time job that I can walk to work when the weather is nice.
But, of course, there's always something we can do better. The media is very good at reminding us of that, and generously offers up all the ways we could do better. Lately, I've been reading story after story about probiotics — they help us lose weight, cure allergies, even out our moods, make us happy, keep us happy, help us eat less, help us basically never need to eat, cure cancer, and more. Not since kale has there been such a heralded fixer of everything that's wrong with us.
Related: I Banned Sugar From My Diet for a Week and Here's What Happened
Probiotics to the Rescue… Maybe
I like having the wrong things about me fixed, so I went to the local health food store near me and picked out a probiotic. It wasn't just any probiotic, though, but a great probiotic. It came from fruits and vegetables or had fruits and vegetables added or something. Whatever makes things natural (and whatever packaging makes things look natural) is what this probiotic had. All I had to do was take six pills a day and then I'd be a glowing, healthy pinnacle of goodness.
I took my first dose that morning. I continued through the rest of the day. I felt fine, but nothing spectacular. I figured the magic needed a day or so to set in. I was hopeful and excited.
The next day, I woke up a bit stuffy. My digestive system, normally pretty easygoing, wasn't sure what it wanted to do. I was mildly uncomfortable all day. A few pimples started to pop up.
This continued for a few more days. It wasn't quite as obnoxious as having a cold or the flu, but I also didn't feel better by any stretch of the imagination. Where was my magically perfect health that the internet had promised? Why wasn't I feeling any better, and was, in fact, feeling worse?
Feeling confused and a bit betrayed by my body. I chatted with a friend, a local healthcare provider.
"Oh yes," she said. "Probiotics are funny. For some people, they're great. For others, they can create a weird sort of allergic reaction and make things worse. Stop taking them for a few days and see what happens."
My expensive probiotics were hurting me?! That couldn't be right.
But I followed her advice. The issues went away.
I did a bit of Googling and found that this wasn't all that uncommon. WebMD warns that, while probiotics are usually considered safe, that they can lead to allergic reactions and digestive upset, especially for the first few days of taking them. Some people even develop serious infections or other unpleasant side effects.
There's nothing wrong, of course, with trying to fine-tune your health, and I'm not mad that I tried the probiotics (though I am a little bit mad that I spent $40 on a supplement that made me feel worse). It's possible that my body would have gotten used to them and some of that promised magic would have kicked in. Maybe all the benefits come after you feel terrible for a few days.
But why deal with that when I'm doing fine? It's not like my health was suffering or my digestion was bad before. I just fell for all the marketing that told me that my life would improve if I bought this one thing that everyone else had magically improved their lives with. Turns out, a regular walk, drinking lots of water, and eating all my favorite fibrous vegetables does much better things for my digestive health than the probiotics did. Ultimately, according to WebMD, "Your body doesn't need probiotics. You already have healthy bacteria in your gut. But it usually doesn't hurt to take them, and adding them to your diet might help." For me, it didn't help and even hurt a little bit.
Those fancy probiotics are still in my fridge, mostly unused. It's certainly lovely that they help people, but they don't help everyone. In an ideal world, I'd have been able to chat with my primary care physician beforehand about the pros and cons, but that wasn't an option for me. Instead I was left to the whims of marketing and advertising, which left me worse off than I'd been before.