Could A Probiotic Supplement Make You Healthier?

What Is The Truth About Our Microbiome?

Myth BusterOur gut bacteria, often referred to as our microbiome, are a “hot” topic in today’s world. They have been in the news a lot in recent years. If you believe the headlines, the right gut bacteria can make you smarter, healthier, and cure what ails you. They appear to have almost mystical powers. Could a probiotic supplement make you healthier?

How much of this is true and how much is pure speculation? It’s hard to say. Our microbiome is incredibly complex. To make matters more confusing, the terminology used to classify our gut bacteria into groups is not consistent. It varies from study to study.

Perhaps it is time to take an unbiased look at the data and separate fact from speculation.

Could A Probiotic Supplement Make You Healthier?

Probiotic SupplementTo answer the question of whether a probiotic supplement could make you healthier, we need to differentiate between what we know is true and what we think might be true. Let’s start with what we know for certain:

  • Our gut bacteria are affected by diet. People consuming a primarily plant-based diet have different populations of gut bacteria than people consuming a primarily meat-based diet.
    • The populations of gut bacteria found in people consuming a plant-based diet are associated with better health outcomes, but associations have their limitations as discussed below.
  • Our gut bacteria are affected by exercise.
    • It’s not clear whether it is the exercise or the fitness (increased muscle mass, decreased fat mass, improved metabolism) associated with exercise that is responsible for this effect.

Most of the other claims for the effects of gut bacteria on our health are based on associations. However, associations do not prove cause and effect. For example:

  • Certain populations of gut bacteria are associated with obesity.
    • Do our gut bacteria make us obese, or does obesity affect our gut bacteria? There is evidence to support both viewpoints.
  • Certain populations of gut bacteria are associated with better mental health.
    • Do gut bacteria influence mental health, or does the stress associated with poor mental health influence our gut bacteria? Again, there is evidence to support both viewpoints.
  • Certain populations of gut bacteria are associated with better health outcomes (reduction in diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure).
    • Here the question is a little different. In general, the populations of gut bacteria associated with disease reduction are produced by a healthy diet, exercise, and weight control. In this case, the question becomes: Is it the gut bacteria that caused disease reduction, or is it diet, exercise, and weight control that caused disease reduction?

To better understand these points, let’s look at four recently published studies. After reviewing those studies, I will come back to the question of whether a probiotic supplement might decrease our disease risk.

Is Our Microbiome Better Than Our Genes For Predicting Disease?

Predict DiseaseThis study (T. Tierney et al, bioRxiv, 2020) reviewed 47 studies that analyzed people’s microbiome (their gut bacteria) and their genes and asked which was better at predicting their risk of various diseases. The study focused on 13 diseases that are considered “complex” because they are caused by both genetic and environmental factors such as diet and exercise. Examples include diabetes, high blood pressure, digestive disorders, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia.

The study found that our microbiome was a better predictor of these diseases than our genes. This finding is not surprising. Our microbiome is heavily influenced by diet and other environmental factors. Our DNA sequence is not.

This study supports previous studies in suggesting that our microbiome is a better predictor of most diseases than our DNA sequence. The exception would be diseases that are clearly caused by gene mutations, such as sickle cell disease.

Does this mean our microbiome is directly influencing these diseases, or is it merely serving as a marker for diet and other environmental factors that are influencing these diseases? Nobody knows.

Does The Mediterranean Diet Support Gut Bacteria Linked To Healthy Aging?

Mediterranean dietThis study ( TS Ghosh et al, Gut, 17 February 2020) divided people aged 65-79 into two groups. One group consumed a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, olive oil, and fish and low in red meat and saturated fat. The other group consumed a typical western diet. After a year on the diets the gut bacteria in the microbiomes of the two groups was analyzed.

The study found that the group consuming the Mediterranean diet had an increase in gut bacteria associated with healthy aging, reduced inflammation, and reduced frailty.

The title of the paper describing this study was “Mediterranean diet intervention alters the gut microbiome in older people, reducing frailty and improving health status”. But is that true?

There is already good evidence that the Mediterranean diet improves health status. Is it the gut bacteria supported by the Mediterranean diet that were responsible for healthy aging, or were other aspects of the Mediterranean diet responsible for healthy aging? Nobody knows.

Are Low Fat Diets Healthy Because Of Their Effect On Our Microbiome?

Heart Healthy DietThis study (Y Wang et al, Gut Microbes, 21 January 2020) put participants on a low fat diet (20% fat and 66% carbohydrates), a moderate fat diet (30% fat and 56% carbohydrate) or a high fat diet (40% fat, 46% carbohydrates). To assure the accuracy of the diets, participants were provided with all foods and beverages they consumed. After 6 months on the three diets, the gut bacteria of each group were analyzed.

Note: Because all food and beverages were provided, none of the diets included sodas, added sugar, refined flour, saturated fats, or highly processed food. In short, the diets were very different than the typical low fat or low carb diets consumed by the average American.

This study found that participants consuming the high fat, low carb diet had gut bacteria associated with increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. In contrast, the low fat, high carbohydrate diet group had gut bacteria associated with decreased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

To understand this study, you need to reevaluate what you may have learned from Dr. Strangelove’s health blog. It is true that low fat diets in which fat has been replaced with sugar, refined flour, and highly processed low-fat foods are unhealthy. But that’s not what happened in this study.

Remember that all the food and drink the participants consumed was selected by dietitians.

When you replace the fat with whole foods – fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes, as was done in this study, you end up with a very healthy diet.

The authors talked about the importance of the “diet-gut axis” for reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes. However, is it the gut bacteria that influenced the risk of heart disease and diabetes, or is it the diets themselves that influenced disease risk? Nobody knows.

Can Gut Bacteria Reduce Heart Disease Risk?

MicrobiomeThis study (Y Heianza et al, Journal of The American College Of Cardiology, 75: 763-772, 2019) focused on the interactions between diet, gut bacteria, and a metabolite called TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide).

Here is what we know for certain:

  • L-carnitine (found in high levels in red meat) can be converted to TMA (trimethylamine) by gut bacteria and then to TMAO in the liver.
  • The gut bacteria of meat eaters are very efficient at converting L-carnitine to TMA. Thus, meat eaters tend to have high levels of TMAO in their blood.
  • The gut bacteria of vegans and vegetarians are very inefficient at converting L-carnitine to TMA. Thus, people consuming a primarily plant-based diet tend to have low TMAO levels in their blood.

Here is what we are uncertain about:

  • High TMAO levels are associated with increased heart disease risk. However, there is no direct evidence that TMAO causes heart disease.

What made this study unique is that it measured TMAO levels in the study participants at their entrance into the study and again 10 years later. The study found:

  • Participants with the greatest increase in TMAO levels over the 10 years had a 67% increased risk of heart disease compared to participants whose TMAO levels remained constant.
  • Participants consuming a healthy, primarily plant-based diet had little or no increase in TMAO levels over 10 years. It was the participants consuming an unhealthy diet who had significant increases in their TMAO levels.

This study strengthens the association between TMAO levels and heart disease risk. Because gut bacteria are required to produce TMAO, it also strengthens the association between gut bacteria and heart disease risk. However, is it the high TMAO levels that increased heart disease risk or is it the unhealthy diet that increased heart disease risk? Nobody knows.

What Is The Truth About Our Microbiome?

MicrobiomeBy now you have probably noticed a common theme that runs through all four studies. This is also true of most published studies on our microbiome.

  • We have good evidence that whole food, primarily plant-based diets lead to improved long-term health outcomes.
  • We also have good evidence that whole food, primarily plant-based diets influence the populations of gut bacteria found in our microbiome.
  • We know the populations of gut bacteria supported by primarily plant-based diets are associated with improved health outcomes.
  • We don’t really know whether it is the gut bacteria or the diets that are responsible for the improved health outcomes.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not a microbiome skeptic. I think we have enough evidence to say that our gut bacteria are likely to have an important effect on our health. However, to claim that gut bacteria play a primary role in influencing our health would be pure speculation at this point.

A Cautionary Tale

HDL CHolesterolWhy do I make this point? It’s because I suspect that some in the supplement industry will be tempted to make probiotic supplements and claim they contain bacteria “known” to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. You wouldn’t need to change your diet. All you would need to do to improve your health would be to take their probiotic supplement.

Lest you be taken in by such future claims, let me share a cautionary tale.

High HDL cholesterol levels are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Exercise and weight loss increase HDL levels. However, those require work. They aren’t easy. So, pharmaceutical companies were constantly looking for ways to raise HDL levels without the hard work.

A few years ago, a pharmaceutical company discovered a drug that increased HDL levels. They thought they had discovered a wonder drug that would bring in billions of dollars. People wouldn’t need to exercise. They wouldn’t need to lose weight. All they would need to do would be to take their drug. HDL levels would go up and heart disease risk would go down.

However, when they tested their drug in a major clinical trial, it didn’t move the needle. HDL levels went up, but heart disease risk stayed the same. It turns out it was the exercise and weight loss that decreased heart disease risk, not the increase in HDL levels.

My message is simple. Even if our gut bacteria are found to play a major role in mediating the effect of diet on health outcomes, don’t assume we can take a probiotic and forget about the role of diet and exercise. Good health starts with a whole food, primarily plant-based diet and a healthy lifestyle.

The Bottom Line

Our gut bacteria, often referred to as our microbiome, are “hot”. If you believe the headlines, the right gut bacteria can make you smarter, healthier, and cure what ails you. How much of this is true and how much is pure speculation? In this article I reviewed four recent studies on diet, gut bacteria, and health outcomes. I took an unbiased look at the data and separated fact from speculation.

There was a common theme that ran through all four studies. This is also true of most published studies on our microbiome.

  • We have good evidence that whole food, primarily plant-based diets lead to improved long-term health outcomes.
  • We also have good evidence that whole food, primarily plant-based diets influence the populations of bacteria found in our gut, also known as our microbiome.
  • We know the populations of gut bacteria supported by primarily plant-based diets are associated with improved health outcomes.
  • We don’t really know whether it is the gut bacteria or the diets that are responsible for the improved health outcomes.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not a microbiome skeptic. I think we have enough evidence to say that our gut bacteria are likely to have an important effect on our health. However, to claim that gut bacteria play a primary role in influencing our health would be pure speculation at this point.

Why do I make this point? It’s because I suspect that some in the supplement industry will be tempted to make probiotic supplements and claim they contain bacteria “known” to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. You wouldn’t need to change your diet. All you would need to do to improve your health would be to take their probiotic supplement.

My message is simple. Even if our gut bacteria are found to play a major role in mediating the effect of diet on our health outcomes, don’t assume we can take a probiotic and forget about the role of diet and exercise. Good health starts with a whole food, primarily plant-based diet and a healthy lifestyle.

For more details, read the article above. You may be particularly interested in the cautionary tale I shared about HDL and heart disease risk.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease

Preventing And Reversing Osteoporosis

A Bone Health Lifestyle

Author: Julie Donnelly, LMT – The Pain Relief Expert

Editor: Dr. Steve Chaney

Woman Enjoying Autumn LeavesFall is glorious in my book.  I was up in New York a few weeks ago, and the trees were just changing – I was about a week too early for the best colors, but it was still beautiful. Then I flew out to Lake Tahoe, and it was really beautiful there.  The air was crisp and clean, and I loved all the fall decorations.

In Florida we are entering our most wonderful time of year. It’s starting to get cooler, the humidity is going down, and hurricane season is over. Hooray!  It’s great to be outdoors again!

Please remember all the people who are still going through very difficult times in the Bahamas.  Many people have lost their homes, their workplaces and the income that supports them, and some have lost loved ones. A devastating loss.

We here in the USA were blessed that Dorian didn’t come any further west and do the same thing to Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. I wanted to share what I have with the people who now have nothing. That made me search for places I trust that will send all the money I donate. In case you want to help, and you don’t have a favorite charity, I want to share those places with you:

https://disaster.salvationarmyusa.org

http://secure.americares.org/help/now‎

https://www.mercycorps.org/articles/hurricane-dorian-bahamas#mercy-corps-helping

Preventing And Reversing Osteoporosis

Exercise And NutritionWeight-bearing exercise builds strong bones. That statement is so common that just about everyone knows they need to exercise for strong muscles and bones, and for all the good it does for just about every system in the body.  And, we are what we eat, so nutrition is vital.

Do you like to exercise? Some people are almost addicted to exercise, but I’m not one of them.  I go to the gym and I have a fitness trainer to help me stay on track, but it fits right in with my eagerness of going to the dentist.  I must say, I’d like that to change, and maybe if I can find a workout partner, it will.

Meanwhile I need to do something because I’ve been told I have osteoporosis. Yikes! One thing for sure, I’m not taking any type of medication. I truly believe there is another solution.

While I’m not an exercise nut, I do love nutrition and I know that the body is so adaptable that if it’s given the proper nutrition, it can do miracles. I believe nutrition and exercise can reverse this osteoporosis diagnosis.

A Bone Healthy Lifestyle

A Bone Healthy Lifestyle
A Bone Healthy Lifestyle

The first thing I did was contact my friend, Steve Chaney, PhD, author of the weekly blog “Health Tips From The Professor.  He pointed me to an article he had written on a “Bone Healthy Lifestyle”. Here is a brief summary:

  • Exercise, calcium, and vitamin D are all essential for bone formation. If any of them are missing, you can’t form healthy bone. The reason so many clinical studies on calcium supplementation and bone density have come up empty is that exercise, or vitamin D, or both were not included in the study.
  • Get plenty of weight bearing exercise. This is an essential part of a bone healthy lifestyle. Your local Y can probably give you guidance if you can’t afford a personal trainer. Of course, if you have physical limitations or have a disease, you should consult with your health professional before beginning any exercise program.
  • Get your blood 25-hydroxy vitamin D level tested. If it is low, take enough supplemental vitamin D to get your 25-hydroxy vitamin D level into the adequate range – optimal is even better. Adequate blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D are also essential for you to be able to utilize calcium efficiently.
  • Consume a “bone healthy” diet that emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, minimizes meats, and eliminates sodas and other acidic beverages. For more details on whether your favorite foods are acid-forming or alkaline-forming, you can find plenty of charts on the internet.
  • Minimize the use of medications that adversely affect bone density. You’ll need to work with your doctor on this one.
  • Consider a calcium supplement. Even when you are doing everything else correctly, you still need adequate calcium in your diet to form strong bones. Dr. Chaney wasn’t advocating a “one-size fits all” 1,000 to 1,200 mg/day for everyone. Supplementation is always most effective when you actually need it. For example:

o   If you are not including dairy products in your diet (either because they are acid-forming or for other health reasons), it will be difficult for you to get adequate amounts of calcium in your diet. You can get calcium from other food sources such as green leafy vegetables. However, unless you plan your diet very carefully you will probably not get enough.

o   If you are taking medications that decrease bone density, that may increase your need for supplemental calcium. Ask your pharmacist about the effect of any medications you are taking on your calcium requirements.

  • If you do use a calcium supplement, make sure it is complete. Don’t just settle for calcium and vitamin D. At the very least you will want your supplement to contain magnesium and vitamin K. Dr. Chaney recommends that it also contain zinc, copper, and manganese.

Between increasing my exercise and ramping up all the nutrients that build bone, I just know that by this time next year I’m going to be surprising the doctor with my great health

Diet and Chronic Disease: Type 2 Diabetes and Heart Disease

Can You Cut Your Risk Of Heart Disease And Diabetes In Half?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

diet and chronic disease heart attackIt is no secret that heart disease and diabetes are among the top two causes of death in this country. They are killers. Even worse, they can affect your quality of life for years before they kill you. Finally, they are bankrupting our health care system. Anything we can do to reduce the toll of these diseases would be of great benefit.

Is there a connection between diet and chronic disease, specifically type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease?

That is why recent headlines suggesting that deaths due to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes could be cut almost in half simply by changing our diet caught my attention. Of course, those headlines came as no surprise. It almost seems like the American diet is designed to make us fat and unhealthy. It seems designed to make us die prematurely from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

 

How Was The Study Done?

diet and chronic disease heart diseaseThis was a major study (R. Micha et al, JAMA, 317: 912-924, 2017 ). They started by using something called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). NHANES is a major survey conducted approximately every 10 years by the US government to collect data on demographics, disease, and diet from a cross section of the US population. They used this database to determine how frequently Americans consumed various heart-healthy and heart-unhealthy foods. They collected data from two surveys conducted in 1999-2002 and 2009-2012 to determine how consumption of those foods had changed over that 10-year period.

  • The heart-healthy foods they included in their study were fruits, vegetables, nuts & seeds, whole grains, and seafood omega-3s (long chain omega-3s).
  • The heart-unhealthy foods they included in their study were red meats, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sodium.

They then did a meta-analysis of high quality clinical studies measuring the effects of those foods on deaths due to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. They combined the data from all these studies to calculate the deaths due to all three causes combined, something they called deaths due to cardiometabolic disease.

Diet and Chronic Disease, Preventing Type 2 Diabetes and Heart Disease

diet and chronic disease lifestyleWhen the investigators combined all the data, they estimated that changing one’s diet from heart-unhealthy foods to heart-healthy foods would reduce cardiometabolic deaths (deaths due to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes) by 45.4%. That is an almost 50% reduction just by eating a healthier diet.

  • This probably underestimates the benefit of eating a healthier diet because they did not include the effects of reducing saturated fats, sweets, and refined carbohydrates on cardiometabolic deaths.
  • The reduction in cardiometabolic deaths was consistent across all demographic groups. It ranged from 40% to 60% when they considered gender, age, or ethnicity.
  • The 45.4% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths represents a holistic change to a healthier diet. When you consider the individual components of the standard American diet:
  • Decreasing sodium intake gives a 9.5% reduction in deaths.
  • Increasing intake of nuts and seeds gives an 8.5% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
  • Decreasing intake of processed meats gives an 8.2% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
  • Increasing intake of vegetables gives a 7.6% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
  • Increasing intake of fruits gives a 7.5% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
  • Decreasing intake of sugar-sweetened beverages gives a 7.4% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
  • Increasing intake of whole grains gives a 5.9% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
  • Decreasing red meat consumption gives a 4.2% decease in diabetes deaths. They did not include the effect of red meat consumption on heart disease or stroke deaths in their calculation.

diet and chronic disease heartHolistic changes are best: It would be easy to look at each of those individual changes and conclude that the change is so small that it isn’t worth the effort. That would be totally missing the point. These data clearly show a relationship between diet and chronic disease:

  • A holistic change in diet that includes all these individual changes can make a huge difference in your risk of dying from heart disease, stroke, or diabetes.
  • Even if you are not prepared to make this many changes at once, each individual change gets you one step closer to a longer, healthier life. In fact, if you make just one or two of these changes you have reduced your risk of dying more than if you were taking a statin drug – and with no side effects.

The good news is that Americans have made some positive changes in their diet between the first and second NHANES survey, and, as a result, cardiometabolic deaths declined by 26.5%. The biggest contributors to this improvement were:

  • Increased polyunsaturated fat consumption (-20.8%).
  • Increased nut and seed consumption (-18%).
  • Decreased sugar sweetened beverage consumption (-14.5%).
  • This was partially offset by increased processed meat consumption (+14.4%)

The authors concluded: “Dietary factors were estimated to be associated with a substantial proportion of deaths from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. These results should help identify priorities, guide public health planning, and inform strategies to alter dietary habits and improve health.”  Below is a summary of the relationship between diet and chronic disease (specifically type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease).

 

The Bottom Line

It almost seems like the American diet is designed to make us fat and unhealthy. It seems designed to make us die prematurely from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. A recent study looked at the effect of a healthier diet on what they called cardiometabolic deaths (deaths due to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes). They concluded:

  • changing one’s diet from heart-unhealthy foods to heart-healthy foods would reduce cardiometabolic deaths by 45.4%. That is an almost 50% reduction just by eating a healthier diet.
  • This probably underestimates the benefit of eating a healthier diet because they did not include the effects of reducing saturated fats, sugary foods, and refined carbohydrates on cardiometabolic deaths.
  • The reduction in cardiometabolic deaths was consistent across all demographic groups. It ranged from 40% to 60% when they considered gender, age, or ethnicity.
  • The 45.4% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths represents a holistic change to a healthier diet. When you consider the individual components of the standard American diet:
    • Decreasing sodium intake gives a 9.5% reduction in deaths.
    • Increasing intake of nuts and seeds gives an 8.5% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
    • Decreasing intake of processed meats gives an 8.2% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
    • Increasing intake of vegetables gives a 7.6% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
    • Increasing intake of fruits gives a 7.5% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
    • Decreasing intake of sugar-sweetened beverages gives a 7.4% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
    • Increasing intake of whole grains gives a 5.9% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
    • Decreasing red meat consumption gives a 4.2% reduction in diabetes deaths. They did not include the effect of red meat consumption on heart disease or stroke deaths in their calculation.

It would be easy to look at each of those individual changes and conclude that the change is so small that it isn’t worth the effort. That would be totally missing the point. These data clearly show:

  • A holistic change in diet that includes all these individual changes can make a huge difference in your risk of dying from heart disease, stroke, or diabetes.
  • Even if you are not prepared to make this many changes at once, each individual change gets you one step closer to a longer, healthier life. In fact, if you make just one or two of these changes you have reduced your risk of dying more than if you were taking a statin drug – and with no side effects.

The authors concluded: “Dietary factors were estimated to be associated with a substantial proportion of deaths from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. These results should help identify priorities, guide public health planning, and inform strategies to alter dietary habits and improve health.”

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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