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Natural medicine: quick tips for better health from naturopath Michael Murray.

Q I am confused about probiotics. I thought I needed them only after taking antibiotics. Should I be taking these daily? And if so, should I take them in a supplement or can I get them in food?

DR. MICHAEL MURRAY: The term probiotic is derived from the Greek language and means "for life." It is used to describe the beneficial bacteria that inhabit the human intestinal tract. Probiotics can be found in fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, and kombucha as well as in supplements containing freeze-dried bacteria. The microorganisms found in these products are usually Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacteria.

THE SCIENCE. The bacteria that inhabit our intestinal tract (also called our intestinal flora or microbiome) play a major role in our health, and not just our intestinal health; gut bacteria have a profound effect on the rest of our bodies as well For example, one of the key ways the body gets rid of cancer-causing substances such as excess estrogen or fat-soluble toxins like pesticides and solvents is by binding the toxin in the liver to a molecule called glucuronic acid and then excreting it in bile. However, the bond between the toxin and its "escort" acid can be broken by glucuronidase, an enzyme produced by certain bacteria. Excess glucuronidase activity means more of the toxins are liberated from glucuronic acid, getting reabsorbed into the body instead of being led out. Higher glucuronidase activity in the gut is associated with an increased cancer risk, particularly the risk of developing estrogen-dependent breast cancer.

Eating a diet high in fat and low in fiber results in higher levels of the gut bacteria that secrete glueuronidase. In contrast, one of the protective effects of a high-fiber diet is that it leads to higher levels of the beneficial bacteria that reduce glucuronidase activity. Foods that reduce glucuronidase activity include onions, garlic, apples, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, and lettuce. Not surprisingly, these foods have shown protection against breast cancer.

SHOULD YOU CONSIDER A PROBIOTIC SUPPLEMENT? While we can get probiotics from foods, many of these bacteria are transient inhabitants: they do not adhere to the lining of the intestine. Their beneficial effects are achieved as they pass through the intestinal tract. In contrast, many of the species that are available in probiotic supplements bind to receptor sites on intestinal cells, where they act as a protective barrier.

When we take antibiotics, they kill off the body's probiotic organisms. This can lead to antibiotic-induced diarrhea, the overgrowth of fungal Candida albicans, or even severe damage to the colon from the bacterium Clostridium difficile. I'd recommend taking probiotic supplementation during and after antibiotic use. Since the dosage is based on the number of live organisms, I'd use products that list the number of live bacteria at expiration versus the time of manufacture. Successful results are most often achieved by taking between 5 billion and 20 billion viable bacteria per day.

Do you need to take regular supplements of probiotics? Yes, if you suffer from digestive tract issues like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, or ulcerative colitis; if you get frequent urinary or vaginal tract infections; or if you are taking drugs that tend to disrupt the intestinal tract (such as prednisone, anti-inflammatory drugs, or hormones). Otherwise, I feel that once the flora are established, and nourished through a high-fiber diet, the healthy bacteria should flourish.

Q I was thrilled to read the National Institutes of Health study that found so many benefits to drinking coffee. What are your thoughts on this?

DR. MICHAEL MURRAY: My first thought was to chuckle. The impact of many foods on our health is completely individualized. In other words, one person's food is another person's poison, and this is certainly the case with coffee. One of the major drawbacks in conventional medical research is that it assumes we are all alike. It's becoming more and more clear that we aren't.

THE SCIENCE. Each of us has unique biochemical traits that determine who we are and how we interact with food (and drugs). One of the major determinants of biochemical individuality is a family of enzymes known as the cytochrome P450 enzymes. These play a critical role in metabolizing food components, detoxifying drugs and cancer-causing compounds, and regulating hormones. Differences in the P450 enzymes can explain why some people can smoke without developing lung cancer, or why certain individuals are more susceptible to the harmful effects of pesticides and other toxic chemicals.

Differences in P450 enzyme activity can also explain the health effects of your diet. For example, let's take a look at the research on the effects of coffee consumption on heart disease. The research has been mixed: one study finds no correlation between coffee consumption and high blood pressure or heart disease, while the next shows a strong link to coffee consumption and the risk of heart disease. Why are the two so different? It depends on the group being studied and the manner in which most subjects in the group metabolize caffeine or gain benefit from the antioxidant compounds in coffee.

One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at the way in which people metabolized caffeine and then examined heart attack rates. When the researchers divided the group according to whether they possessed an enzyme that quickly metabolizes caffeine, or a different enzyme that metabolizes it more slowly, suddenly the picture on the impact of caffeine intake and heart attack became very clear. People who break down caffeine rapidly decrease their risk of a heart attack by drinking coffee, while slow caffeine metabolizers dramatically increase their risk! Drinking four cups a day of coffee was associated with a 17 percent decrease risk in fast metabolizers and a 260 percent increased risk in slow metabolizers.


How do you know if you are a fast or slow metabolizer? If caffeine makes you feel a bit nervous, irritable, hyper, anxious, or depressed, or if it causes insomnia, you are likely a slow metabolizer. If you are a fast metabolizer, you can tolerate caffeine. Remember, though, that one cup produces better protection against a heart attack than drinking two or more cups, and when you get above four cups, you start losing any real benefit.

Coffee can be source of beneficial antioxidants and healthful in low quantities if it works for your body. Otherwise, choose decal, but keep in mind that even decal still has levels of caffeine that can be a problem for some people. Lastly, coffee's health benefits pale in comparison with the benefits provided by many other foods, most notably chocolate, berries, and other richly colored fruit and vegetables.

Health Benefits of Probiotics

Probiotics help promote a healthy intestinal environment and stimulate the gastrointestinal tract and systemic immunity. They also help prevent and treat a number of ailments, including:

Antibiotic-induced diarrhea

Urinary tract infection

Vaginal yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis


Food allergies


Irritable bowel syndrome

inflammatory bowel disease

Ulcerative colitis

Crohn's disease

Traveler's diarrhea

Lactose intolerance

Michael Murray is the author of The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine and other books Send your questions to
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Title Annotation:HEAL YOURSELF
Author:Murray, Michael
Publication:Spirituality & Health Magazine
Date:May 1, 2013
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