Millennials and their "big data" ideas drive me crazy.
Big data is when you take lots of published research and try to find deeper insights and trends from the whole pool of data.
When done well, it can provide good insight. This happens with some medical research when careful analysts find useful trends and conclusions.
But other times, this craze for "big data" leads to recklessness.
The latest nonsense out now involves a new analysis of beneficial bacteria called probiotics.
Medical research students in Denmark... under the tutelage of someone who really should have known better... looked at seven flawed and poor-quality studies and concluded that probiotics have no benefits for healthy folks.
Over the years, I've written about the strong evidence for probiotics providing health benefits. These bacteria are similar to the healthy bacteria already lining our colons. Probiotics protect the lining of your intestines, help you better absorb nutrients, and give your immune system a big boost.
Sometimes, illnesses wipe out your healthy bacteria, or you might not get enough bacteria if you don't eat a balanced diet. Taking probiotics brings bacteria into your colon, helping to restore the correct balance of bugs.
That's why I had to take a hard look at this new analysis. What I found was embarrassing...
The articles included in the review each had small numbers of participants. Worse, the dropout rates (people who never finished the study) are staggering – more than half the participants never bothered to report back to finish several of the studies. How can we make a well-informed decision based on 20 or 30 participants?
Not to mention these studies didn't focus on long-term use of probiotics. They lasted, on average, only 30 days.
Last, and most important, all but one study in this analysis used only one strain of probiotic bacteria (the last study used two). Because people's guts are different, one strain might not benefit someone. You might need to try several or combine a few for the right fit. These studies didn't account for that.
And the dosage they used of each strain only went as high as 10 billion bacteria. That sounds like a lot, but our guts contain 100 trillion bacteria... Those treatments were just a drop in the bucket.
Considerations like these are vital to making informed decisions about your own health and wellness. Yes, thorough analysis of randomized controlled studies can offer good insights, but only when the studies themselves are solid. Always take the time to look into the reported studies.
I certainly won't let news like this stop me from enjoying probiotics. The evidence of their immune-boosting powers is well documented. In fact, I'm going to share with you some of my favorite ways to benefit from probiotics.
The best (and most delicious) way is with food.
1) Yogurt is probably the most widely consumed source of probiotics. Yogurt may contain different strains of bacteria, which you can find on the label. But generally yogurt will contain both of the most common types found in our guts: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
When choosing a yogurt, check that the label says "contains live cultures." Don't buy stuff that says "made with live cultures" or "heat-treated"... Manufacturers pasteurize these products. That means the heat kills the cultures... and you get none of the benefits. Likewise, frozen yogurt does not contain live cultures because the bacteria can't survive the cold temperatures.
Just make sure to buy yogurt without any of the added sugars or fruits to get the most benefit.
2) Kimchi is a popular Korean dish made by fermenting cabbage and spices. It contains several strains of Lactobacillus. Research from the Journal of Applied Microbiology found that kimchi contains healthy bacteria called L. acidophilus KFRI342. Early studies suggest KFRI342 has great health benefits, including the potential to fight off the growth of precancerous colon cells.
3) Similar to kimchi, sauerkraut is fermented cabbage. Popular in many Germanic cultures, it packs a sour punch instead of a spicy one. It also contains many strains of healthy gut bacteria. A study out of North Carolina State University found as many as 10 different species of beneficial bacteria in pre-packaged sauerkraut. Most of those strains belonged to the Lactobacillus genre.
You can also get your probiotics in pill form.
Longtime subscribers know I prefer getting benefits from whole foods instead of pills.
However, probiotic pills can contain more strains of bacteria than probiotic foods. And as they contain just the bugs and not a bunch of fillers or potentially dangerous chemicals, I'm more inclined to take this type of supplement. Just make sure to follow these rules for choosing a probiotic supplement...
1) Check the expiration date. Because probiotics are alive, they won't last in a box in your medicine cabinet forever. They will run out of food supply quickly and start to die off. Taking them by the expiration date gets you the best benefit.
2) Don't fall for the gummies. Independent research firm Labdoor conducted an in-depth review of 30 kinds of probiotics. It found gummy and chewable products contained about 92% fewer bacteria than the regular pill forms.
3) Look for a supplement with more than one type of bacteria. Both Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium have dozens of species. Because our individual bodies have unique mixtures of gut bacteria, some types will help you more than others. Combinations of different species offer more diverse possibilities.
Probiotic bacteria offer plenty of health benefits, from improving digestion to preventing colds and the flu. If you want to make them part of your health plan, do what I do and make yogurt and other fermented foods part of your regular diet. I also take a few pills to keep my microbiome stable when I travel. That way, the bacteria help my colon stay healthy when I switch to a new local cuisine with new species of bugs.
What We're Reading...
- You can read Labdoor's probiotic test findings right here.
- The mind-gut connection – how your colon controls your moods.
- Something different: How keeping busy keeps your brain sharp.