Over the last 15 years the use of this supplement has soared, both among practicing physicians and the general public. All kinds of people are consuming probiotic supplements, including people who turn up their nose at most alternative medicine.
Of course, you know that probiotics improve your digestion and elimination, but did you know that they can also help you prevent and treat cancer? And if you ever choose chemotherapy, probiotics can help make it more effective.
Probiotics help you to digest your food and to soak up more of the nutrients it contains than you would otherwise. The term itself – probiotics – means “supporting life.”
Probiotics support the life of your gut flora, or microbiota, the ecosystem of different bacteria in your colon. This is important because their influence on your health is something scientists are only beginning to understand. When the intestinal microbiota is disturbed, causing a condition called dysbiosis, the science shows it can lead to obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, autism spectrum disorder and cancer.
Probiotics power up your immune system
I’ve written in the past about the importance of probiotics for maintaining a healthy gut and a healthy immune system. After all, the immune system is your first line of defense against cancer – not to mention the most effective way to thwart existing cancers.
Because close to 70 percent of your immune system is found in your gut, keeping the area healthy is one of the smartest ways you can fight off cancer.
So how exactly do probiotics work? Think of them as a factory pumping out your own personal disease-fighting army. They build up the good bacteria – the “good guys” that help fight off the bad bacteria – “bad guys” – in your gut.
“Your intestines hold about ten pounds of microorganisms,” says Erma Levy, a research dietitian in Behavioral Science at MD Anderson. “And each person has a unique blend that starts forming at birth. Probiotics help your immune system function at its best so it can detect and kill cells that can become cancer.”
Specifically, research published in the journal Current Microbiology, found that probiotic bacteria have the ability to both increase and decrease the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines which play an important role in the prevention of cancer formation. Probiotics are also capable of activating phagocytes to eliminate early-stage cancer cells.
In addition, beneficial bacteria in your intestinal tract also help metabolize nutrients and package waste for disposal from your body. For example, the nitrites found in a lot of processed foods (such as bacon, cured ham, hot dogs, corned beef, pastrami, and pepperoni) get converted by certain enzymes to carcinogens once they hit your intestines. But probiotics like Lactobacillus acidophilus destroy these nitrites and reduce the supply of enzymes that convert the nitrites to carcinogens. That lowers your risk for certain cancers – colon cancer, in particular.
New research into probiotics and colon cancer
When researchers in India compared patients without colon cancer to patients with colon cancer, they found the microbial structure of sample tissues from patients with the cancer was “significantly different, and the diversity (of bacteria) was lower.”
What’s more, when researchers treated the colon cancer patients with probiotics, the treatment increased the number and diversity of the bacteria and improved the “microbial structure.” The team published their findings in 2019 in the journal Scientific Reports.
Also, researchers found that probiotics could dramatically reduce the number of bad bacteria called Fusibacter genus, which have been shown to contribute to the development of colon cancer. And, in a separate study, researchers found that probiotics could be used effectively against the bacteria. The researchers suggest that “in people who are highly susceptible to colorectal cancer, probiotics might be used as an alternative biological therapy to prevent or even treat the cancer.”
But it’s not just colon cancer…
Probiotics help heal a variety of cancers
A number of studies performed over the last decade have shown that abnormal changes in the composition and function of intestinal microbes could encourage the development of a variety of other cancers, such as cancers of the lung, liver, pancreas, bladder, and breast. What’s more, researchers point to probiotics as effective for the prevention of these cancers.
A study published in 2019 in the journal Natural Medicine linked bad bacteria in the digestive tract to the development of liver cancer. On the other hand, another team of researchers found that treatment with probiotics could stop the progression of liver cancer—at least in laboratory mice.
Scientists from MIT who experimented with breast cancer in mouse models found that probiotic supplementation increased T-cell counts and helped to counteract inflammation. T-cells are important immune cells, and inflammation is an immune system function (which often goes awry and can cause a host of diseases, including cancer).
There’s been similar findings in the case of lung cancer, whether the lung is the location of the primary tumor or is the site of metastasis.
A recent study by researchers in Italy found that probiotic aerosol therapy was beneficial in stopping the growth and spread of lung melanoma cancer. Researchers believed the probiotic spray worked by stopping inflammation caused through the inhalation of toxins in the air. In addition, a type of probiotics called Lactobacillus rhamnosus triggered more immune cells in the lung tissue and improved the body’s response to cancer.
Another group of researchers found that when they used probiotics in combination with chemotherapy, the chemotherapy worked better.
In fact, there’s been several studies in laboratory animals that show while chemotherapy drugs can work without the presence of healthy intestinal flora, the survival rate of animals treated with chemotherapy drugs improves with the presence of healthy intestinal flora.
In a study that appeared in the November 2014 issue of Science magazine, researchers from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) took a look at tumor-ridden mice who were completely lacking in gut microorganisms after being given heavy antibiotics. The mice were slow to respond to any kind of immunotherapy that slows cancer growth and appeared unable to respond to leading chemotherapy drugs (cisplatin and oxaliplatin).
In another study, this time from the University of Michigan, published in the journal Nature, the authors suggested probiotics could be the antidote to the toxic effects of chemotherapy treatments, in much the same way probiotics counteract the harmful effects of antibiotic overuse. The study even suggests that probiotics and solid intestinal health may be the key to surviving chemotherapy.
How to restore your gut flora
Probiotic supplements are easy to come by, but make sure you purchase a quality brand and keep them refrigerated.
In one report ConsumerLab.com found that 30 percent of probiotic products don’t measure up to the claim of viable bacteria on their labels. Then there’s the fact that some probiotic products say they have a single strain of healthy bacteria, while others claim ten to twenty strains.
And how about the dose? The research suggests, “The more the merrier.” A label that claims one billion live cultures sounds impressive, but that’s a low dose of probiotics.
These problems are why our sister company, Green Valley Natural Solutions, has formulated Comfort Pro: Premium Probiotic Formula, which contains a variety of probiotic strains including BB-536, the only probiotic strain proven in six human clinical studies to improve gut health. You can learn more about it here.
Meanwhile, there are some dietary changes you can make to improve your intake of probiotics. These include a daily serving of home-made yogurt if you can tolerate dairy. You can buy live yogurt cultures, some milk, and do it yourself in an InstantPot. It practically guarantees a healthy regular dose of probiotics. Store-bought kefir and Greek yogurt are also good options.
If you can’t have milk products, it’s not a problem. Your local health food store likely carries several brands of soy, almond, and coconut yogurts with probiotics. Always look for the phrase “contains active cultures” on the label, and steer clear of any product that makes specific health claims. Here are some other natural ways to add probiotics to your diet:
- Try sauerkraut. A German staple, sauerkraut is lacto-fermented cabbage. Along with giving you a healthy dose of good bacteria, the fermentation process that turns regular cabbage into sauerkraut actually increases the bioavailability of nutrients, making sauerkraut especially nutritious.
- Eat kimchee, another excellent, all-natural source of probiotics. It’s a traditional, spicy-and-sour, fermented Korean side dish made from vegetables and a variety of seasonings. Also spelled kimchi, its core ingredients are cut cabbage, radish, scallions, and garlic.
- Enjoy miso soup, which is a popular breakfast food in Japan and includes fermented soybean paste, which can also really ramp up your digestive health. Careful if you’re avoiding gluten – miso often contains wheat.
- Choose tempeh, an Indonesian patty made from a base of fermented soybeans that can be eaten marinated and used in meals in place of meat.
- Find a sourdough bread that commonly (though not always) contains lactobacilli.
Probiotics are on my list of “can’t live without it” supplements. And I’m not alone. A study published in the International Journal of Cancer went as far as to suggest the use of certain microbes and probiotics could generate a large-scale positive effect on the population, dramatically improving public health if enough people start consuming them—they’re that powerful!
So, make sure you’re taking a good probiotic every day. Your body will thank you.
- Helmink BA, Khan MAW, Hermann A. The microbiome, cancer, and cancer therapy. Nat Med(2019) 25:377–88. doi: 10.1038/s41591-019-0377-7
- Li J, Sung CYJ, Lee N, Ni Y, Pihlajamäki J, Panagiotou G, et al. Probiotics modulated gut microbiota suppresses hepatocellular carcinoma growth in mice. Proc Natl Acad Sci (2016) 113:E1306–15. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1518189113
- Gopalakrishnan V, Spencer CN, Nezi L. Gut microbiome modulates response to anti-PD-1 immunotherapy in melanoma patients. Science (2018) 359:97–103. doi: 10.1126/science.aan4236
- Roy S, Trinchieri G. Microbiota: a key orchestrator of cancer therapy. Nat Rev Cancer (2017) 17:271–85. doi: 10.1038/nrc.2017.13
- “Beneficial bacteria stimulate host immune cells to counteract dietary and genetic predisposition to mammary cancer in mice.” By Jessica R. Lakritz, et al. International Journal of Cancer, Volume 135, Issue 3, pages 529–540, 01 August 2014. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ijc.28702/abstract
- “Breakthrough Study: Probiotics Save Cancer Patients from Deadly Chemo & Damaging Antibiotics.” By Christina Sarich for Natural Society, 19 August 2013. http://naturalsociety.com/probiotics-save-cancer-patients-deadly-chemo-antibiotics/
- “Probiotics Fight Cancer and Like Sweeteners.” By M.E. Morgan for the Beneficial Bacteria Site. 6 January 2014. http://beneficialbacteria.net/probiotics-fight-cancer-and-like-sweeteners/
- “Sauerkraut: Anti-cancer Fermented Food that Restores Gut Flora.” by John P. Thomas for Health Impact News. 7 December 2014. http://healthimpactnews.com/2014/sauerkraut-anti-cancer-fermented-food-that-restores-gut-flora/
- “Why You Should Consider Taking Probiotics During And After Cancer Treatment.” By Brian D. Lawenda, M.D., for Integrative Oncology Essentials. 22 November 2013. http://www.integrativeoncology-essentials.com/2013/11/why-you-should-consider-taking-probiotics-during-and-after-cancer-treatment/