Our health is often dictated by three important factors; our genes, hormones and microbiome. There is no doubt that together, these three can dominate how we feel physically and mentally. This is why the medical community and health media spend so much time talking about these subjects. There are healers who devote their whole practice to one or all of them. Unfortunately, many of those practitioners don’t know what they’re talking about. There are very few real experts on these subjects and of those experts. even fewer are in a position to give individual advice.
That’s why I call these fields the Three Stooges of Health. The practitioners who depend on these three are often ignorant or unscrupulous. Either way, it’s dangerous.
I gave an overview of the Three Stooges concept in the post, Your Genes, Hormones and Microbiome – The Three Stooges of Health. In that post, we also met the first stooge, genetics, as the troupe’s “Moe.” In the next post, Hormone Hacks – One Of The Three Stooges of Health, we examined the “Larry,” your hormones, and how endocrinology should be practiced only by endocrinologists.
In this post, we check out the third and final stooge, your microbiome and the perfidious nature of probiotics.
As we continue this discussion and as is the custom, it’s helpful to reference that well-worn chart from The Karma Sense Eating Plan, the 6 Factors That Impact Health.
In this model, we link six different categories that work together to define your wellness. You have more control over some of these categories than others, but at neither end of the spectrum is your control or lack thereof absolute.
Where Do Probiotics Fit?
Probiotics are health-promoting bacteria and other organisms that are usually packaged as supplements or in some foods. Probiotics may help increase the population of beneficial bacteria that reside in or on the target. Most commercial probiotics target the gut but these organisms extend to your skin, scalp and every orifice.
This community of microorganisms is also known as the microbiome. Probiotics and your microbiome impact a range of factors in the above model. There is proof that they regulate mood (mindset), appetite (nutrition), hormone levels (physiology), metabolism (also physiology), immunity (physiology again) and more. That makes it difficult to assign probiotics to one single category in the “6 Factor” model, but since most of its actions are physiological, I assign them to the second box from the left, physiology.
The Microbiome Medical Miracle
Every day, scientists discover new ways that the microbiome affects your health. Through their research, we know that a healthy mix of bugs in your gut improves:
- Digestion (study, study, study)
- Weight Management (study)
- Mood and General Brain Health (study)
- Heart Health (study)
- Inflammation (study)
- Immunity (study)
There are billions of bacteria in your gut representing hundreds of different species and not all of them are friendly. Therefore scientists also focus on isolating individual species and determining how they affect health. They’re making great progress.
Sounds Promising. Why is it a Stooge?
Because scientists don’t really know how any of this works. Furthermore, while they can correlate specific species of bacteria to distinct outcomes, those outcomes don’t occur 100% of the time. Here are some examples of factors scientists are still working through:
- Genes – Over one-third of your microbiome is genetically determined. You can’t change it.
- Physiology – Certain gut bacteria can convert some foods to weak versions of sex hormones. Sex hormones stir mood and metabolism which affect gut bacteria.
- Physical Activity – Exercise can counteract negative effects pollutants have on the microbiome.
- Nutrition – Low fiber diets deplete mucous membranes in the intestines and create a harsh environment for beneficial bacteria.
- Mindset – Stress modifies the composition of gut flora.
- Physical Environment – Exposure to pollution changes the composition of gut flora.
And that leads to opportunity for hucksters. By now there are thousands of products that claim probiotic effects. There have always been supplements in the form of pills and foods that are naturally probiotic (e.g., yogurt). But now, with all the recent publicity of the probiotics craze, people who want to sell stuff are really upping their game.
From Ridiculous to More Ridiculous
I mean really upping their game, like:
- Probiotic supplements at over $1.50 a pill.
- Probiotic ice cream
- Probiotic chips
But Here is the Thing
These products, as well as most other probiotic products, are udder bullcrap (see what I did there?). They are so full of bovine crap that they broke the bullcrap detector.
I could describe the problem in excruciating detail (you know I can) but instead, I summarize the problem by quickly mentioning two studies.
Probiotics are Mostly Ineffective
University of Copenhagen scientists (Go Fightin’ Freja!) performed a survey of seven randomized controlled trials to determine how ingesting various probiotics changed the composition of the study subject’s microbiome. What’d they find?
…no effects were observed on the fecal microbiota composition in terms of α-diversity, richness, or evenness in any of the included studies when compared to placebo
Summary: They tested people’s poop and the probiotics didn’t do anything.
Probiotics aren’t What You Think They Are
A University of California Davis (Go Mustangs!) study analyzed seventeen randomly selected probiotic products. Of those they found:
- Only one product contained the specific bacteria it claimed.
- One product was highly inconsistent between samples. It did not contain the same concentration of bacteria from one package to the other.
- Nine of the products contained a different subspecies of the bacteria from what was listed.
- Twelve of the products did not contain any of the bacteria they were supposed to.
- Four of the products contained totally different species than what was listed.
Either quality control is an issue or it’s not even a concern.
But all is not lost. Yes, gut health is critical to physical and mental health. We don’t know the details. We don’t yet know how to engineer individual microbiomes with precision. But we do know how to manage the gut for optimal health
Do You Want to Manage Your Gut for Optimal Health?
It’s time to go back to the basics.
- If your doctor or practitioner instructs you to buy specific probiotic supplements, ask a lot of questions. Why that brand? What is the evidence it will work? Will insurance pay for it? Don’t proceed without answers that make sense. It is fully possible that you and the probiotic-of-choice are perfectly matched and that you will get the desired result. If your doctor hesitates to answer or baffles you with bullcrap, it’s safe to assume the product is a waste of money.
- Feed yer little critters. Even if probiotics do work, taking them and not otherwise adjusting your diet is like stocking a pond full of fish and forgetting to feed them. Although your microbiome is primarily driven by genetics, your day-to-day diet decides which bacteria will flourish and which will perish. You’re doing your own little Darwinian experiment with every meal. Eating more junk, feeds the bacteria that thrive on junk at the expense of bacteria that thrive on the foods that truly nourish you. Tone down the junk just a little and turn up the high-quality protein, fats and carbohydrates and you’ll do more to re-engineer your gut than any quick fix product can.
- Eat natural probiotics. Eating foods like yogurt and sauerkraut may help improve your gut health but it’s more because you’re following #2 above than because of the healthy bacteria they contain.
- Don’t forget PREbiotics. Eating natural prebiotic foods (foods that feed gut bacteria) is also a version of #2 above. Well known prebiotic foods include asparagus, bananas, barley, dandelion greens, garlic, leeks, oats, onions, and sunchokes. They are at their prebiotic peak when eaten raw.
- Unless you absolutely need to, don’t take antibiotics. Antibiotics kill bacteria. Including bacteria in your gut. Antibiotics don’t kill viruses, including the cold virus, the flu or other non-bacterial infections. Doctors know this but when faced with no other option but listening to patients whine about symptoms, antibiotics are often their go-to solution.
- Do everything else you know is good for you including sleep, drink water, exercise and manage stress. All of these may have negative effects on the little critters you want to keep happy.
- At this time, the most promising therapy for adjusting an individual’s gut to support optimal health is through poop transplants. This is every bit as gross and unpleasant as it sounds. If you resist numbers one through six above, this is your next option.
Guess the Stooge
So, with the dominant genes as the “Moe” and the slow-to-respond hormones as the “Larry” you might guess that the microbiome would be “Curly.” And while Curly is the funny stooge and the microbiome is funny because it has to do with poop, it’s actually more like “Curly Joe” DeRita. The new stooge on the block that no one really knows.