Today we hear a lot about probiotics, especially when popular yogurts are fortified with them. So what are they? The term probiotics is simply a synthesized word for live microorganisms (bacteria or yeast) that may have some health benefits. In the lower part of your gut, you have a virtual zoo of microorganisms. Some are beneficial; others are very harmful. In fact, it is estimated that you have 10 times as many microorganisms in the gut than the entire number of cells that constitute your body. Of the hundreds of different microorganisms in the gut, two usually stand out as probiotic stars: Lactobacillus and bifidobacterium.
It appears that selected strains of these particular microorganisms have anti-inflammatory properties, which inhibit the activity of nuclear factor-κB (NF-κB), the genetic “master switch” that turns on inflammation (1,2). Certain yeasts secrete a soluble factor that also inhibits NF-κB (3), and this may be the same mechanism that those “friendly” bacteria use to reduce inflammation.
But here's the problem with probiotics — you have to get enough of the live organisms into the gut to provide any benefits. It's easy to fortify them into some yogurt product that is kept at low temperature, but getting those bacteria to pass through the digestive system and reach the lower part of the large intestine is another story. It is estimated that 99.999 percent of the live probiotics are digested in the process.
So how can you enhance the biological action of those extremely few probiotics that actually make it alive to the lower intestine? The answer is polyphenols. Like probiotics, polyphenols also inhibit NF-κB (4,5). In fact, polyphenols are the primary agents that protect plants from microbial attack.
Unlike probiotics, polyphenols are more robust in their ability to reach the lower intestine. But like probiotics you have to take enough polyphenols to have a therapeutic effect in the gut. You will probably need at least 8,000 ORAC units per day to maintain adequate levels of polyphenols in the gut. That is approximately 10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. But if you want to significantly reduce the existing inflammatory burden in the gut and the rest of body, you have to consume a lot more polyphenols. Supplementation with highly purified polyphenols becomes your only realistic alternative.
And here is where I think the real benefits of dietary polyphenols may reside. By reducing the inflammatory load in the gut, you can automatically reduce the anti-inflammatory load in the rest of the entire body. So before you take that next serving of probiotic-fortified yogurt, make sure you are taking adequate levels of polyphenols to make sure those probiotics actually deliver their marketing promises.
- Hegazy SK and El-Bedewy MM. “Effect of probiotics on pro-inflammatory cytokines and NF-kappaB activation in ulcerative colitis.” World J Gastroenterol 16: 4145-4151 (2010).
- Bai AP, Ouyang Q, Xiao XR, and Li SF. “Probiotics modulate inflammatory cytokine secretion from inflamed mucosa in active ulcerative colitis.” Int J Clin Pract 60: 284-288 (2006).
- Sougioultzis S, Simeonidis S, Bhaskar KR, Chen X, Anton PM, Keates S, Pothoulakis C, and Kelly CP. “Saccharomyces boulardii produces a soluble anti-inflammatory factor that inhibits NF-kappaB-mediated IL-8 gene expression. Biochem Biophys Res Commun 343: 69-76 (2006).
- Romier B, Van De Walle J, During A, Larondelle Y, and Schneider YJ. “Modulation of signaling nuclear factor-kappaB activation pathway by polyphenols in human intestinal Caco-2 cells.” Br J Nutr 100: 542-551 (2008).
- Jung M, Triebel S, Anke T,Richling E, and Erkel G. “Influence of apple polyphenols on inflammatory gene expression.” Mol Nutr Food Res 53: 1263-1280 (2009).