Last weekend, I was channel surfing and happened on Brenda Watson’s Road to Perfect Health on PBS. This is one of those programs that is win-win for PBS and book authors … the network gets generally interesting programming to use in fundraising efforts, and the author gets great PR for their new book.
I was happy to watch given the description: “the importance of probiotics to good health is explained.” Probiotics are kinda the new antioxidants. Who hasn’t seen Jamie Lee Curtis promoting their use in regulating one’s digestive tract?
Aye there’s the rub, it’s not clear it’s as simple as eating yogurt every day. Supplements seem like a good choice, but how do you know that you are doing anything more than creating expensive pee?
First things first
So I was happy to watch The Road to Perfect Health and hopefully learn something about probiotics. Watson made some interesting points (check PBS’ schedule to see when the program is on in your area). That said, a quick search showed that Watson’s website (and presumably book) conveniently link you to an online probiotics store. I think it’s a safe bet that the products there all conveniently meet her guidelines for probiotics!
So with that caveat emptor, here are some of the highlights from the hour or so long program, with some additional commentary and links provided by moi.
Why is the gut important?
In the first segment, Watson goes over the importance of the gut and good bacteria to our immune system. Basically, the gut is 70-80% of our immune system. And rather than go into detail, I’ll just point you to some summaries of this, one from Watson herself, one from Mark Hyman and one from Mark Sisson (note: the latter also sells probiotics).
According to Watson, a healthy gut is critical because it:
- strengthens your immunity
- helps maintain a healthy intestinal lining
- enhances the body’s ability to detox
- manufactures vitamins B & K
Why are our guts imbalanced?
Per Watson, these are the things that damage our guts and make it hard for the friendly bacteria to thrive:
1) Overuse of antibiotics — Antibiotics can cure what ails us, but they also indiscriminately kill off our friendly bacteria as well.
2) Microbes/parasites — This could be either yeast/candida (which can grow out of control due to antibiotics) or parasites we can pick up from our travels (or from our foods that travel).
3) Overuse of antacids — Interestingly enough, heartburn may actually be a symptom of too little acid in the stomach! All the antacid popping does is make this problem worse, making it hard to digest our food. It also screws up the pH of this part of the gut.
4) Undigested food — Low stomach acid is a common reason. Undigested food, particularly meat/protein, leads to inflammation and potentially to a leaky gut.
5) Environmental toxins — Air, water, food all can contain chemicals and other toxins that can disrupt our gut.
6) Age — After age 50, our friendly bacteria (e.g. bifido in colon) begin to decline naturally.
What to look for in a probiotic supplement
Watson notes that fermented foods like yogurt can help restore friendly bacteria, but she suggests that you’d need something like a gallon of yogurt to get the amount of cultures you’d need each day. So she suggests supplementing our diet with probiotics. But not just any probiotic … per Watson, this is what to look for in a supplement:
1) 15+ billion culture count — In terms of probiotics, more is probably better. Many of the probiotics I’ve checked seem to meet this guideline.
2) 10+ strains — Including multiple strains seems worthwhile, though even 10 is a tiny number considering there are 300-1000 strains in the human gut. Watson recommends getting both bifidobacterium and lactobacillus strains. Buying different brands that complement each other would seem an easy way to get multiple strains.
3) delayed release — This one makes total sense. In general, any probiotic has to make it past the acidic environment of the stomach to be useful. Make sure your probiotic explains how it does this.
4) potency at expiration — A big issue with probiotics is potency when you take it. Better probiotics will tell you on the label how many cultures are guaranteed at product expiration.
Some probiotics require refrigeration (like this one I’ve taken). Be careful where you get refrigerated probiotics. It doesn’t do you any good if they are in the fridge in the store but sat in a hot delivery truck or in a hot warehouse before you bought them.
My current take
At this point in time, research on probiotics is still inconclusive (at least in terms of the claims made by supplement sellers). That said, I find the concept of gut health pretty compelling … especially the idea of the gut-brain connection and a possible link to obesity).
So for now, I am including a probiotic in my diet, tho I also rotate brands to vary the strains I’m getting. I’m also trying to increase the amount of fermented foods in my diet. Finally, I’m also making sure to getting some prebiotics in my diet — some folks think prebiotic-containing foods like the onion could be the new apple (one a day to keep the doctor away).
Do you have a probiotic you like? Or an alternate approach? I’d love to hear it!