Probiotics and Your Immune System

At the Fancy Food Show, five or six booths sold probiotic foods, usually yogurt. At each booth I asked what they could tell me about the health effects of probiotics. Mostly the question seemed to annoy them — especially the employees hired for the event.

But at the Oixos booth — Oixos is a Greek yogurt made by Stonyfield Farm, an organic dairy in New Hampshire — Amy Plourde, a graphic designer at Stonyfield, told me that for a long time she was “always sick” with sinus infections, colds, and even mononucleosis. During that time, she ate yogurt once/week. When she started working at Stonyfield she began to eat yogurt once/day (6 oz. at breakfast) and her health got much better. Stonyfield yogurt has relatively high amounts of live bacteria. Their website has a list of scientific papers about yogurt and the immune system.

My take is that our immune systems need a steady stream of foreign pathogens (e.g., bacteria) and pieces of pathogens (e.g., bacterial cell walls) to stay “awake”. When your immune system is working properly you fight off all sorts of bacteria and viruses without noticing. When your immune system isn’t working properly it overreacts (allergies) and takes too long to react (infectious diseases). Weston Price found twelve communities eating traditional diets whose health was excellent. Their diets varied tremendously but one thing they had in common was daily consumption of fermented foods, including cheese, kefir, sauerkraut, and fermented fish. This supports Amy’s story right down to the dosage. If you don’t eat fermented foods, you might use hookworms, which excrete a steady stream of foreign substances into the blood. (Thanks, Tom.) Hookworms definitely reduce allergy symptoms; I don’t think anyone has asked if they reduce colds and other infections.

The hygiene hypothesis.

13 Replies to “Probiotics and Your Immune System”

  1. Very interesting. I started about a month ago to drink Kefir every evening after dinner and eat yogurt–from Stonyfields coincidentally, almost every morning for breakfast. I also started eating raw-milk cheese almost every day. My last cold was in October, 2008. During the winter break, many of my friends and family got the common cold, but not me. Over the last two weeks, both of my daughters were so sick with the cold that they had to stay home from day care. During that time, I had slight body aches and a slight disregulation of internal body temperature for two evenings in a row. Both nights, I went to bed earlier than usual and woke up feeling refreshed and healthy. After the second evening I was completely better again. I think I must have caught the cold from my family but fought it off very quickly and suffered only very minor symptoms.

    My experience is thus consistent with what Amy said. I have also, however, been taking 1/2 teaspoon daily of high-vitamin cod liver oil, 1/2 teaspoon daily of high vitamin butter oil (both a la recommendations of Weston Price to ensure adequate intake of fat soluble vitamins like A, D, and K2), and for the past two weeks 4,000 iu of vitamin D3. I’ve also been reducing the amount of wheat I consume, and try to only eat sprouted wheat when I do eat it at all. I do occasionally indulge in regular pizza, but only a couple of times per month. I’ve also switched to cooking with butter, coconut oil, or bacon grease instead of seed-based oils if I do any frying.

    Thus, the increase in probiotics may have something to do with my increased immunity, but these other factors may contribute as well. I generally have much higher energy levels than at any other time in my life, and my teeth feel very hard and strong (my next dental visit is next week and I’m curious as to what they will find). My skin also is very clear and healthy looking and feeling.

  2. This reminds me of a news item I read a couple years back, some scientist’s explanation of the purpose of the human appendix (sorry, no link). He said it isn’t an accidental leftover of evolution, but rather a vital reservoir for bacteria and other foreign biostuff.

    As I recall, the basic idea was that in pre-civilized times diarrhea was a frequent, common human condition (due to illness and bad food). Purging the whole digestive tract like that leaves it barren of all the “helpful” bacteria it needs, but since the appendix is essentially a cul-de-sac, the gunk is still lurking there ready to re-seed the gut after the illness passes. In this hypothesis I think the purpose of the bacteria was for digestion, not immunity, but who knows.

  3. Mike, that’s very interesting. The hypothesis is that the appendix contains the starter culture to replenish the gut’s beneficial ecosystem.

  4. Art Devaney,, the Evolutionary Fit guy, has a different take,not that I agree, but he’s always admonishing No Dairy, for instance, this statement, from Jan 20th, ” Remember, there are trade offs. The ability to digest lactose does not come free. The immune system still has to respond in new ways with the load of foreign proteins in dairy. Moderate cheese intake is fine, but you do out grow you need for dairy.”

  5. I also had a positive experience with probiotic yogurt. Using the yogurt seemed to correlate with getting rid of a metal taste that had been plaguing me for over a week.

    For a few months I have read the debates that have surrounded your observations on the merits of samples in medicine and phycology, self-experimentation, on diets, on set points, and other difficult subjects. I appreciate them and I wish there were other scientists that would have the courage to follow your lead. In systems as complicated as humans it is often very difficult understand what matters and what doesn’t, if there are any dependent variables or is everything interconnected. In these cases one may learn more from knowing many details about the subject than from having a large sample. Often, knowing what to investigate is hard and careful observation, useful.

    It is the return of the natural philosopher.

  6. Don’t forget fatty acid balancing. While probiotics have helped my health a lot, what seems to have helped my allergies and immune system the most is keeping my omega6 intake minimal, and trying to eat as much omega 3 and EPA rich food as possible. It really helps to reduce overreactions and ailments associated with inflammation. (as do probiotics of course)

Comments are closed.