Are Probiotics Bad For You?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Probiotics

Are Probiotics Worthless?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

are probiotics bad for youProbiotics (friendly gut bacteria) are all the rage. There is big money to be made, so the internet is ablaze with all the amazing things probiotics can do for you. Of course, most of those articles are posted by companies wanting to sell you their miracle mixture of probiotic bacteria.

In the last few weeks, you may have seen headlines proclaiming that probiotics are worthless. You just poop them out. Even worse, they may be upsetting the natural balance of bacteria in your gut. Are probiotics bad for you?  They may be.

As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Before I start sorting out fact from fiction, let me remind you of some important facts about gut bacteria that I covered in a recent article of “Health Tips From The Professor”:

  • The composition of bacteria in our gut is influenced by what we eat. For example, meat eaters have a completely different composition of gut bacteria than vegetarians.
  • Fiber from whole plant foods is a major food source for healthy gut bacteria.
  • Each plant-based food group and each food within that group has a unique blend of fibers. We should probably aim for a wide variety of whole plant foods in our diet.

Are Probiotics Worthless?

 

are probiotics bad for you studyLet’s start with the study (N. Zmora et al, Cell 174, 1388-1405, 2018 ) that generated the headlines proclaiming that probiotics were worthless.

The characteristics of the study with my comments are as follows:

  • The study had 15 subjects who were given either a commercially available probiotic supplement or a placebo containing cellulose. It was a very small study.
  • The probiotic supplement contained 25 billion colony forming units of 11 commonly used strains of bacteria. Its manufacturer claimed the bacteria survived stomach acid and colonized the intestine, but no references were given for published clinical studies backing up that claim. It is buyer beware in the supplement industry. I would not believe any claims about a probiotic supplement that were not backed up by published clinical studies.
  • The investigators measured bacterial colonization of the mucosal cells lining the intestine rather than the population of bacteria that ended up in the feces. This is the “gold standard” for measuring colonization of the intestine by probiotic bacteria. However, it requires a colonoscopy before the study started and a second colonoscopy 3 weeks later. As any of you who have had a colonoscopy can attest, this is a very invasive procedure. It probably accounts for the small size of the study. In fact, the study started with 28 subjects and 13 dropped out, one after suffering a serious adverse reaction to the first colonoscopy. My point is simply that I don’t expect to see a lot of this type of study.

are probiotics bad for you supplementsThe results of the study with my comments are as follows:

  • Overall, the particular probiotic supplement used in this study didn’t work very well. There was minimal colonization of the intestinal mucosal cells by the bacteria in the probiotic supplement. Some did better than others, but the net colonization was small. We don’t know whether the results would have been the same with other probiotic supplements, but this is the finding that generated all the headlines. However, it is the rest of the study that is interesting.
  • The probiotic supplement worked better for some subjects than for others. Some of the subjects in the study were “permissive.” The probiotic cells colonized their intestinal mucosal cells with high efficiency. Other subjects were “resistant.”  Probiotic bacteria had a great deal of difficulty colonizing their intestinal mucosal cells. This doesn’t surprise me. Most clinical studies report an average result. They don’t report individual variations. This is one of the first studies to report on individual variation of probiotic colonization. As such, it has important implications. It means that even though you may be taking a probiotic supplement that has been “clinically proven” to survive stomach acid and colonize the intestine, it may not work well for you. But, wait, the study gets even more interesting.
  • How well the probiotic supplement worked depended on the population of bacteria in the intestine to begin with. “Permissive” and “resistant” subjects had very different species of bacteria in their intestine at the beginning of the trial. There was a characteristic grouping of bacteria in “permissive” subjects and a different characteristic grouping of bacteria in “resistant” subjects. This is the part of the study that should have generated headlines. Let’s put this part of the study into perspective.

We each have around 38 trillion bacteria in our intestines. Let’s assume that all 25 billion bacteria in the probiotic supplement make it into the intestine intact. You have just dropped them into hostile territory where they are outnumbered 1,000 to 1. We know that some bacteria secret substances that support the growth of “like-minded” bacteria. That’s why certain species of bacteria tend to cluster together. We also know that bacteria secret toxins, so they can out-compete bacteria they don’t like. So, it is no wonder the survival of the probiotic bacteria depends on which species of bacteria are already populating the intestine when they arrive on the scene.

This study leaves a lot of unanswered questions:

  • What determined the original population of gut bacteria? Was it the genetics or health of the subject? Or, was it the food they were eating? We simply don’t know.
  • We were sending these probiotic bacteria into hostile territory. Were we giving them the food they needed to survive? Would the results have been different for the “resistant” subjects if they had been eating a different kind of fiber-rich foods, or taken a prebiotic supplement? Again, we just don’t know.

If we want to optimize the results of probiotic supplementation, these are the questions we should be asking.

 

Are Probiotics Bad For You?

are probiotics bad for you thumbs downNow, let’s turn to the study (J. Suez et al, Cell 174, 1406-1423, 2018) generating the headlines saying that probiotic supplements may be bad for you. This study was looking specifically at the use of probiotics following antibiotic use.

The study reported when probiotics are used following antibiotic use, they delay, rather than enhance, the recovery of intestinal bacteria back to the same number and type of bacteria that existed prior antibiotic use. That’s the finding that generated all the headlines. Let’s put that into perspective.

Both the headlines and interpretation of the data were inaccurate.

  • Probiotics actually had a relatively small effect on the ability to regain your “normal” population of intestinal bacteria. The headlines made it sound as if the delay was significant and that you never regained your “normal” population of intestinal bacteria. In fact by one measure, the population of intestinal bacteria was 70% normal by 5 days, 80% normal by 20 days, and 95% normal by 90 days.
  • Poop pills work better but will probably never be popular. When the investigators extracted intestinal bacteria from the subject’s poop and put them into pills prior to the study, the poop pills restored the “normal” population of intestinal bacteria much more quickly. However, I doubt that poop pills will become popular any time soon.
  • Your “normal” population of intestinal bacteria may not be the optimal population of intestinal bacteria. The headlines implied that the fact you never recovered your “normal” population of intestinal bacteria was a bad thing. That assertion assumes that all of us have the optimal population of intestinal bacteria to begin with, an assertion that almost any expert in the field would find absurd. The last time I checked, one of the major reasons for taking probiotic supplements was to change our population of intestinal bacteria for the better.

The study ignores the major reasons for taking a probiotic supplement after antibiotic use. Most people are not taking the probiotic supplement to restore their original population of intestinal bacteria. They are taking it to:

  • Prevent “bad guys” like yeast from filling the void caused by the antibiotics.
  • Improve digestion. Some strains of intestinal bacteria play an important role in digestion. Because antibiotics wipe out those bacteria, they often cause gas, diarrhea, and bloating. After antibiotic use, people are taking probiotic bacteria with digestive benefits to eliminate those digestive issues as quickly as possible.
  • Strengthen the immune system. People are generally taking antibiotics to fight some sort of infection. Some strains of intestinal bacteria play an important role in immunity. Because antibiotics wipe out those bacteria, they weaken the immune system. After antibiotic use, people are taking probiotics to strengthen the immune system as quickly as possible

In short, taking probiotic supplements that are proven to improve digestion and strengthen the immune system play an important role in minimizing the side effects of antibiotic use.

What Does This Mean For You?

are probiotics bad for you truthAt the beginning of this article I said; “The truth lies somewhere in between.” The first study is a perfect example.

  • It was valuable in that it challenged the assertion by some manufacturers that their probiotics survive stomach acid and work equally well for everyone. At the very least, it suggests that we should demand clinical proof that any probiotic supplement colonizes the intestine and provides a health benefit before we use it.
  • The most interesting finding from the first study is that probiotics work much better for some people than for others, and how well they work depends on the population of bacteria in our gut prior to taking the antibiotic. We have much more to learn about this individual variability, and how to control it.

Until we know more, my best advice is to eat a fiber-rich, primarily plant-based diet with as many different varieties of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes as possible. Providing a variety of fibers is important because at least some of them will likely support the growth of the bacteria in the probiotic supplement. Prebiotics may be of some help, but only if they have been shown to be effective for the particular strains of probiotic bacteria they are paired with.

The second study was much less enlightening. It reported that taking a probiotic after antibiotic use slowed the return to the original population of intestinal bacteria. My response to that is: “So what?”

  • The effect was minimal.
  • The purpose of probiotics is to improve on the population of intestinal bacteria, not to return to the same population of bacteria you had prior to antibiotic use.
  • Probiotics are taken after antibiotic use for reasons that have nothing to do with restoring the original population of intestinal bacteria.

 

The Bottom Line

 

Two recent studies have challenged the benefits of probiotic use.

The first study provided some valuable insights.

  • It reported that a particular probiotic supplement did a very poor job of colonizing the intestine. We have no idea whether that would apply to other probiotic supplements, but that was the result that generated all the headlines. At the very least, it suggests that we should demand clinical proof that any probiotic supplement colonizes the intestine and provides a health benefit before we use it.
  • However, the most interesting finding from the first study is that probiotics work much better for some people than for others, and how well they work depends on the population of bacteria in our gut prior to taking the antibiotic. We have much more to learn about this individual variability, and how to control it.

The second study was much less enlightening. It reported that taking a probiotic after antibiotic use slowed the return to the “normal” population of intestinal bacteria that were present before antibiotic use. My response to that is: “So what?”

  • The purpose of probiotics is to improve on the population of intestinal bacteria, not to return to the same population of intestinal bacteria you had prior to taking an antibiotic.
  • Probiotics are taken after antibiotic use for reasons that have nothing to do with restoring the original population of intestinal bacteria.

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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What Is The Planetary Diet?

Posted May 21, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is Your Diet Destroying The Planet?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Earth Day has come and gone, but you are still committed to saving the planet. You save energy. You recycle. You drive an electric car. But is your diet destroying the planet?

This is not a new question, but a recent commission of international scientists has conducted a comprehensive study into our diet and its effect on our health and our environment. Their report (W. Willet et al, The Lancet, 393, issue 10170, 447-492, 2019 ) serves as a dire warning of what will happen if we don’t change our ways. I touched on this report briefly in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor,” What Is The Flexitarian Diet , but this topic is important enough that it deserves an issue all its own.

The commission carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:

  • Are they good for us?
  • Are they good for the planet?
  • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.

The commission described the typical American diet as a “lose-lose diet.” It is bad for our health. It is bad for the planet. And it is not sustainable.

In its place they carefully designed their version of a primarily plant-based diet they called a “win-win diet.”  It is good for our health. It is good for the planet. And, it is sustainable.

In their publication they refer to their diet as the “universal healthy reference diet” (What else would you expect from a committee?). However, it has become popularly known as the “Planetary Diet.”

I have spoken before about the importance of a primarily plant-based diet for our health. In that context it is a personal choice. It is optional.

However, this report is a wake-up call. It puts a primarily plant-based diet in an entirely different context. It is essential for the survival of our planet. It is no longer optional.

If you care about global warming…If you care about saving our planet, there is no other choice.

How Was The Study Done?

The study (W. Willet et al, The Lancet, 393, issue 10170, 447-492, 2019 ) was the report of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems. This Commission convened 30 of the top experts from across the globe to prepare a science-based evaluation of the effect of diet on both health and sustainable food production through the year 2050. The Commission included world class experts on healthy diets, agricultural methods, climate change, and earth sciences. The Commission reviewed 356 published studies in preparing their report.

 

Is Your Diet Destroying The Planet?

When they looked at the effect of food production on the environment, the Commission concluded:

  • “Strong evidence indicates that food production is among the largest drivers of global environmental change.” Specifically, the commission reported:
  • Agriculture occupies 40% of global land (58% of that is for pasture use).
  • Food production is responsible for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater use.
  • Conversion of natural ecosystems to croplands and pastures is the largest factor causing species to be threatened with extinction. Specifically, 80% of extinction threats to mammals and bird species are due to agricultural practices.
  • Overuse and misuse of nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizers causes eutrophication. In case you are wondering, eutrophication is defined as the process by which a body of water becomes enriched in dissolved nutrients (such as phosphates from commercial fertilizer) that stimulate the growth of algae and other aquatic plant life, usually resulting in the depletion of dissolved oxygen. This creates dead zones in lakes and coastal regions where fish and other marine organisms cannot survive.
  • About 60% of world fish stocks are fully fished and more than 30% are overfished. Because of this, catch by global marine fisheries has been declining since 1996.
  • “Reaching the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming…is not possible by only decarbonizing the global energy systems. Transformation to healthy diets from sustainable food systems is essential to achieving the Paris Agreement.”
  • The world’s population is expected to increase to 10 billion by 2050. The current system of food production is unsustainable.

When they looked at the effect of the foods we eat on the environment, the Commission concluded:

  • Beef and lamb are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and land use.
  • The concern about land use is obvious because of the large amount of pasture land required to raise cattle and sheep.
  • The concern about greenhouse gas emissions is because cattle and sheep are ruminants. They not only breathe out CO2, but they also release methane into the atmosphere from fermentation in their rumens of the food they eat. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and it persists in the atmosphere 25 times longer than CO2. The single most important thing we can do as individuals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to eat less beef and lamb. [Note: grass fed cattle produce more greenhouse gas emissions than cattle raised on corn because they require 3 years to bring to market rather than 2 years.]
  • In terms of energy use beef, lamb, pork, chicken, dairy and eggs all require much more energy to produce than any of the plant foods.
  • In terms of eutrophication, beef, lamb, and pork, all cause much more eutrophication than any plant food. Dairy and eggs cause more eutrophication than any plant food except fruits.
  • In contrast, plant crops reduce greenhouse gas emissions by removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

 

What Is The Planetary Diet?

In the words of the Commission: “[The Planetary Diet] largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils. It includes a low to moderate amount of seafood, poultry, and eggs. It includes no or a very low amount of red meat, processed meat, sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.”

When described in that fashion it sounds very much like other healthy diets such as semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Flexitarian. However, what truly distinguishes it from the other diets is the restrictions placed on the non-plant portion of the diet to make it both environmentally friendly and sustainable. Here is a more detailed description of the diet:

  • It starts with a vegetarian diet. Vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, soy foods, and whole grains are the foundation of the diet.
  • It allows the option of adding one serving of dairy a day (It turns out that cows produce much less greenhouse emissions per serving of dairy than per serving of beef. That’s because cows take several years to mature before they can be converted to meat, and they are emitting greenhouse gases the entire time).
  • It allows the option of adding one 3 oz serving of fish or poultry or one egg per day.
  • It allows the option of swapping seafood, poultry, or egg for a 3 oz serving of red meat no more than once a week. If you want a 12 oz steak, that would be no more than once a month.

This is obviously very different from the way most Americans currently eat. According to the Commission:

  • “This would require greater than 50% reduction in consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, and greater than 100% increase in the consumption of healthy foods, such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.”
  • “In addition to the benefits for the environment, “dietary changes from current diets to healthy diets are likely to substantially benefit human health, averting about 10.8-11.6 million deaths per year globally.”

What Else Did The Commission Recommend?

In addition to changes in our diets, the Commission also recommended several changes in the way food is produced. Here are a few of them.

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the fuel used to transport food to market.
  • Reduce food losses and waste by at least 50%.
  • Make radical improvements in the efficiency of fertilizer and water use. In terms of fertilizer, the change would be two-fold:
    • In developed countries, reduce fertilizer use and put in place systems to capture runoff and recycle the phosphorous.
    • In third world countries, make fertilizer more available so that crop yields can be increased, something the Commission refer to as eliminating the “yield gap” between third world and developed countries.
  • Stop the expansion of new agricultural land use into natural ecosystems and put in place policies aimed at restoring and re-foresting degraded land.
  • Manage the world’s oceans effectively to ensure that fish stocks are used responsibly and global aquaculture (fish farm) production is expanded sustainability.

What we can do: While most of these are government level policies, we can contribute to the first three by reducing personal food waste and purchasing organic produce locally whenever possible.

What Does This Mean For You?

If you are a vegan, you are probably asking why the Commission did not recommend a completely plant-based diet. The answer is that a vegan diet is perfect for the health of our planet. However, the Commission wanted to make a diet that was as consumer-friendly as possible and still meet their goals of a healthy, environmentally friendly, and sustainable diet.

If you are eating a typical American diet or one of the fad diets that encourage meat consumption, you are probably wondering how you can ever make such drastic changes to your diet. The answer is “one step at a time.”  If you have read my books “Slaying The Food Myths” or “Slaying the Supplement Myths,”  you know that my wife and I did not change our diet overnight. Our diet evolved to something very close to the Planetary Diet over a period of years.

The Commission also purposely designed the Planetary Diet so that you “never have to say never” to your favorite foods. Three ounces of red meat a week does not sound like much, but it allows you a juicy steak once a month.

Sometimes you just need to develop a new mindset. As I shared in my books, my father prided himself on grilling the perfect steak. I love steaks, but I decided to set a few parameters. I don’t waste my red meat calories on anything besides filet mignon at a fine restaurant. It must be a special occasion, and someone else must be buying. That limits it to 2-3 times a year. I still get to enjoy good steak, and I stay well within the parameters of the Planetary diet.

Develop your strategy for enjoying some of your favorite foods within the parameters of the Planetary Diet and have fun with it.

The Bottom Line

 

Is your diet destroying the planet? This is not a new question, but a recent commission of international scientists has conducted a comprehensive study into our diet and its effect on our health and our environment. Their report serves as a dire warning of what will happen to us and our planet if we don’t change our ways.

The Commission carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:

  • Are they good for us?
  • Are they good for the planet?
  • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.

The Commission described the typical American diet as a “lose-lose diet.”  It is bad for our health. It is bad for the planet. And it is not sustainable.

In its place they carefully designed their version of a primarily plant-based diet they called a “win-win diet.”  It is good for our health. It is good for the planet. And, it is sustainable.

In their publication they refer to their diet as the “universal healthy reference diet” (What else would you expect from a committee?). However, it has become popularly known as the “Planetary Diet.”

The Planetary Diet is similar to other healthy diets such as semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Flexitarian. However, what truly distinguishes it from the other diets is the restrictions placed on the non-plant portion of the diet to make it both environmentally friendly and sustainable (for details, read the article above).

I have spoken before about the importance of a primarily plant-based diet for our health. In that context it is a personal choice. It is optional.

However, this report is a wake-up call. It puts a primarily plant-based diet in an entirely different context. It is essential for the survival of our planet. It is no longer optional.

If you care about global warming…If you care about saving our planet, there is no other choice.

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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