The Power of Probiotics
- on April 20, 2011
Bacteria have a reputation for causing disease, so the idea of tossing down a few billion a day for your health might seem — literally and figuratively — hard to swallow. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that you can treat and even prevent some illnesses with foods and supplements containing certain kinds of live bacteria. Northern Europeans consume a lot of these beneficial microorganisms, called probiotics (from pro and biota, meaning “for life”), because of their tradition of eating foods fermented with bacteria, such as yogurt. Probiotic-laced beverages are also big business in Japan.
Enthusiasm for such foods has lagged in the United States, but interest in probiotic supplements is on the rise. Some digestive disease specialists are recommending them for disorders that frustrate conventional medicine, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Since the mid-1990s, clinical studies have established that probiotic therapy can help treat several gastrointestinal ills, delay the development of allergies in children, and treat and prevent vaginal and urinary infections in women.
Self-dosing with bacteria isn’t as outlandish as it might seem. An estimated 100 trillion microorganisms representing more than 500 different species inhabit every normal, healthy bowel. These microorganisms (or microflora) generally don’t make us sick; most are helpful. Gut-dwelling bacteria keep pathogens (harmful microorganisms) in check, aid digestion and nutrient absorption, and contribute to immune function. But that's not all!...Recent research has now linked probiotics to heart health!
What Does Your Gut Have to do With Your Heart?
The impact of diet on heart disease has long been understood (albeit with some very flawed nutritional dogmas) but what is less clear is why two people eating the very same diet can end up with two very different levels of heart health.
According to the latest research documented in the April 2011 issue of Nature science journal, the answer for this phenomenon might possibly have to do with the makeup of your gut flora. According to data from nearly 2,000 people, when the bacteria in your gut break down lecithin, a fat found in meat, eggs, dairy and other animal foods along with baked goods and dietary supplements, and its metabolite choline, it leads to the creation of a by-product called trimethylamine N-oxide or TMAO.
TMAO encourages fatty plaque deposits to form within arteries (atherosclerosis), and the more TMAO you have in your blood the greater your risk of heart disease becomes.
It's not clear which types of gut bacteria lead to the formation of TMAO, but it's suggested that probiotics may help to buffer the effect and thereby help prevent heart disease. Probiotics have already been found to prompt changes in your body that lead to lower blood pressure, as well as influence the activity of hundreds of your genes, helping them to express in a positive, disease-fighting manner.
So it makes sense that your gut bacteria and diet would interact in ways that influence your health. After all, as the study's senior author, Stanley Hazen, M.D., Ph.D., told Science Daily:
"Gut flora is a filter for our largest environmental exposure -- what we eat."
The Best Way to Optimize Your Gut Flora and Prevent Heart Disease
Besides possibly improved heart health, the presence of good bacteria in your gut is important for:
Protection against over-growth of other microorganisms that could cause disease
Digestion of food and absorption of nutrients and certain carbohydrates
Producing vitamins, absorbing minerals and eliminating toxins
Maintaining natural defenses
However, your gut bacteria are vulnerable to your lifestyle. If you eat a lot of sugar, refined grains and processed foods, for instance, your gut bacteria are going to be compromised because processed foods in general will destroy healthy microflora and feed bad bacteria and yeast. Because of this, you need to avoid processed, refined foods in your diet (this is essential for heart disease prevention, too) and regularly reseed your gut with good bacteria to keep your microflora healthy.
Many experts believe that fermented foods are still the best route to optimal microflora health, as long as you eat the traditionally made, unpasteurized versions. However, if you do not eat fermented foods, taking a high-quality probiotic supplement is definitely recommended.
The wide-reaching impact of healthy gut bacteria renders them useful and beneficial for a number of health concerns, some of which are still being uncovered. And because adding probiotics to your diet is so easy, by way of cultured foods and/or supplements, it's one step I highly encourage you to take on your journey to optimal heart and overall health.
For more information about probiotic supplementation, ask your primary health care physician.
Nature April 7, 2011; 472(7341):57-63