Too Much of a Good Thing: How Overdoing It on Probiotics Almost Landed Me in the ER

Moderation has never been one of my strong points. I either do it big or don’t do it at all. So naturally, when I decided to add probiotics to my diet through fermented foods, I went whole hog. Now I know why health experts advise to start slowly with fermented food (or any probiotic supplement); they are extremely powerful and, when used in excess, can create an imbalance in your body that causes more harm than good.

Phase 1: Fermentation Fanatic

How much sauerkraut is too much sauerkraut?  Image: Mattie Hagedorn

How much sauerkraut is too much sauerkraut?
Image: Mattie Hagedorn

Hardly a day passed when I didn’t read a news article or blog post extolling the myriad health benefits of fermented foods: No more depression and anxiety! Clear skin! Boundless energy! Healthy digestion! I couldn’t ignore the headlines any longer, so I hopped to it. Home-brewed kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut, beet kvass, kefir — you name it, I fermented it. I smugly chugged my cup of coconut kefir, cup or more of kombucha, half cup of beet kvass, and scoop or two of kimchi every day, thinking, “Man, [fermentation goddess] Sally Fallon would be so proud.”

Phase 2: The Pain

I felt great at first, but after about two weeks, I started experiencing pain in my upper abdomen. It was nothing debilitating and seemed to ease up after a few days, so I chocked it up to a stomach bug or bacterial die off — very common when incorporating fermented foods — and continued on my merry fermenting way. Weeks later, I started to notice that within minutes of eating or even during meals, I’d find myself with horrible stomach cramping, crazy bloating, and an urgent need to go to the bathroom. So what do you do when you’re having stomach issues? Up the probiotics, of course. Let the good guys beat those bad ones into submission.

Yet the pain only grew worse and more consistent. This was more than just die off. I couldn’t eat anything without writhing in pain. I was tempted to go to the ER, but I dreaded what the doctors would do — they were going to stick a tube either up me or down me and I didn’t want to find out which. So I switched to the very bland, very unpaleo BRAT diet (bananas, white rice, applesauce, and white toast) to see whether that would ease the discomfort. My symptoms disappeared. But that left me with an important question: When will I be able to eat real food again?

Phase 3: A Lesson in Moderation

There are battles being fought in your guts (and, according to this illustration, some parties as well)

There are battles happening in your guts (and, according to this illustration, some parties as well)

While contemplating throwing a banana at my husband’s head while he enjoyed my delicious homemade paleo lasagna, it dawned on me that I might be overdoing the fermented foods. That was the only thing I’d been doing differently during the past several weeks. I refused to consider the notion at first. How could probiotics be hurting me? The very word translates to “for or in support of life.” But I was desperate for a solution, so I decided to take a break from the kombucha, kefir, kvass, and kimchi.

Within a week, the pain and frequent bathroom trips subsided. I was able to eat my usual (unfermented) foods again. I realized then that the lack of balance in my diet had indeed taken its toll on my gut. I decided to let my body recalibrate itself without further intervention. No probiotics, no herbs, no supplements. Just whole foods. It’s been seven months since the first shot was fired in the great gut flora war, but I finally feel peace in my belly and I’ve added back small amounts of my fermented goodies with no issues.

Here are a few things I learned (the hard way) about probiotics:

1) Consume them. They are absolutely necessary for overall health. Most of us have been exposed to antibiotics, junk food, and toxins, all of which negatively impact our gut flora. Experts say 70 to 80 percent of our immune system resides in our gut, so if we don’t feed our good bacteria, they don’t have the strength to fight off invaders. Not only that, the gut is referred to as our “second brain” and imbalances there can impact our mood and memory, among other things.

2) Start slowly. If you have never taken a probiotic supplement or eaten fermented food, don’t introduce billions of bacteria to your gut all at once. This is especially true if you have serious gut issues. Start with a quarter cup a day or less then increase gradually. Die-off symptoms like gas and bloating are common, but cut back if you feel discomfort. It will take awhile for your body to adjust.

3) There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. While these good guys have the best of intentions, a battle among the bacteria can begin if you don’t get a balanced variety of strains in your gut, especially if you’re not introducing them slowly. This can contribute to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or other chronic digestive issues and disorders.

4) Listen to your body. Probiotics, exercise, or any other component of a healthy lifestyle can turn on you if you overdo it. You know what your body needs. Be attuned to its signals. If something feels off, pay attention. Life is all about balance.

Further reading:

Alison is a freelance writer and wellness enthusiast living in Atlanta. When she’s not watching cat YouTube videos, you can find her cooking up a storm, on her yoga mat, kayaking or spending time with her family and menagerie of animals.