Probiotics and the Immune System

Nutrition Health Review, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Probiotics and the Immune System


An Interview with Joel Fuhrman, M.D.

Q.: What are probiotics?

A.: Probiotics are relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of human health. This is because they become an issue when people are taking antibiotics. About 90 percent of antibiotics are used inappropriately, and we are exposed to them because they are fed to animals and the residue is in their tissues or in their milk. Doctors also prescribe them for onset indications of illnesses, to appease people who want the doctor to do something to combat whatever problem brought them there.

Because antibiotics can wipe out the good bacteria in our stomachs, probiotics are indicated to aid in the natural process of regenerating those bacteria. But people who have not taken a medication that could kill the bacteria do not need to artificially expose themselves to any kind of probiotic, because those kinds of bacteria would grow naturally if unchecked.

As a result of fueling on the resistant starches, fibers that pass through the gut, and fuel based on natural protective plants, these bacteria of the gut would thrive healthfully with a nutritious diet. Because the American diet is so high in processed foods and so low in fibrous high-nutrient plant foods, it makes for an abnormal balance in the bacterial species in the gut.

So probiotics become a major problem only when people practice poor dietary habits; they become something like a supplemental intervention. They aid people who are not living healthfully. I don't see probiotics as one of the primary pillars of good health; they are healthful for someone who has not been eating properly, but they are not essential for a healthy life. Of course, a percentage of people do develop bacterial infections, or their immune systems are suppressed by not eating healthfully, in which case probiotics might aid recovery. But when we live a healthy life, avoid unnecessary health care, and eat properly, we should not require probiotics.

Q.: What are prebiotics?

A.: Prebiotics are the factors that fuel the process that probiotics create. Examples include resistant starch and other fibers. When we eat beans, the beans provide certain carbohydrate material that gets broken down not by enzymes but by bacteria lining the gut. When we eat beans on a regular basis, bacteria that are able to process that carbohydrate begin to colonize the gut. Those beans fuel the bacteria, and the bacteria happen to provide the body with anti-inflammatory effects.

When we eat raw vegetables, like spinach, onions, and kale, prebiotics promote the growth of perhaps the healthiest kind of bacteria in the digestive tract. Those undigestible fibers are filled with sterols and stands (in foods like nuts and seeds) that do not get absorbed; they stay in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract to suck out cholesterol as well as promote healthful bacteria. Probiotics are important, but it is not important to take them as supplements because healthy people already have a healthy balance of bacteria in their gut.

Q.: What does superimmunity entail?

A.: I want people to recognize that the risk of cancer is not majorly dependent on luck or genetics; rather, it is a result of the foods we consume. Cancer is due to exposure to toxic chemicals throughout our life. With proper lifestyle modification and being equipped with the knowledge of the causes of cancer, one can develop normal immunity.

My book is titled Super Immunity because Americans have an immunity that is abnormal and poor. The American diet derives an average of 62 percent of its calories from processed foods that do not contain a sufficient amount of antioxidants, phytochemicals, and micronutrients. The processed foods we eat contain insulin-promoting fats, which are actually cancer-causing hormones. Animal products contain insulin growth factor (IGF-1), which can promote cancer.

We're not eating greens, beans, mushrooms, berries, onions, or seeds, all of which are biologically natural foods that promote normal immune function in humans. …

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