Probiotics And Cancer, What’s The Link?

Cancer is an unfortunate reality in my line of work.  Screening for it, thinking about it, looking for it in patients with a large variety of symptoms, and figuring out how to break the news to patients when we find it take up a lot of my time and energy.

I would love it if cancer were LESS of a reality in my job.

That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to read reports of studies showing that a certain type of supplement can be helpful in the prevention and treatment of cancer.  What is the link between probiotics and cancer?

There has been some recent research published showing a role for probiotics for treatment and prevention of some types of cancer.  Those who have a more diverse population of bacteria in their intestinal tracts seemed to respond better to some types of cancer treatment.  Also, those who have had their microbiome (a collective term for all the non-human organisms that live on and in our bodies) damaged by antibiotics don’t respond as well to cancer therapy.

Why does this link to probiotic supplements?  Well we can modify our microbiome by changing our diet and by taking probiotic supplements.

What is the microbiome?

Our microbiome is all the bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses that live on and in our body.  In fact, there are 10 times as many organisms in our microbiome as there are cells that are “us.”  We are walking, talking colonies of nonhuman microscopic organisms!  They influence our mood and the inflammatory state of our body, they make vitamins for us and have a huge influence in general on the state of our health.  They even digest our complex carbohydrates for us!

One of the most important ways the microbiome influences our health is by modulating our immune system.  Our immune system interacts with the microbiome in ways we are just starting to explore.  We know there is an association between autoimmune disorders like Crohn’s disease and alterations of the microbiome known as dysbiosis.  Healthy immunity influences our ability to fight infection and also affects our ability to identify and eliminate abnormal cells before cancer gets a foothold and starts to grow.

How can we influence the microbiome?

There are three significant ways we can change our microbiome to be healthier.  First is to eat a healthy diet low in processed foods, artificial food ingredients and added sugar, and high in whole fresh plant foods.  Soluble and insoluble fiber are our healthy helpful bacteria’s favorite food.  We should get at least 30 grams of fiber in our diet every day.  Not sure how much you’re getting?  You can use a calorie tracker like MyFitnessPal which gives you your daily intake of macronutrients like protein, carbohydrates, fat and fiber.

Soluble fiber turns into goo when you cook it.  Think of beans, apples and oatmeal – three great sources of soluble fiber.  Insoluble fiber doesn’t care if you cook it, it stays hard and rough.  The ribs of celery and the brown coats of brown rice grains are good examples.

A second thing that really influences our microbiome is taking antibiotics.  There is research that shows the gut microflora can have changes that persist for years after a single 7-day course of antibiotics.  We really need to resist the temptation to seek antibiotics for every little cold and respiratory illness that comes along.

The third way we can influence our gut microflora is to take probiotics.  These are supplements that contain living bacteria in a form that is protective from the stomach acid.  They deliver the bacteria to the intestine where they can change the balance of bacteria from more-harmful to more-helpful.

There is research that shows that probiotic supplements can have a role in both the prevention and the treatment of cancer which is really exciting, because they are so very safe, inexpensive and easy to take.

Prevention

There isn’t a lot of research yet published about probiotics and cancer prevention.  However, it is feasible that probiotics may be protective against cancer by strengthening the immune system.  Probiotics also can act by changing the microbiome to a more healthy population of bacteria.

For example, one study did show that soy milk fermented with probiotics has been suggested to be protective against the development of breast cancer, although more study is needed.  Also, the cells lining the colon use the short-chain fatty acid butyrate for most of their energy needs.  Butyrate forms from the fermentation of soluble fiber by bacteria in the colon.  It promotes the growth of healthy colonocytes as well as suppression of proliferation (i.e. cancer formation).  Colon cancer is associated with a relative lack of butyrate-forming bacteria as well as with a lack of fiber in the diet.  Increasing fiber in the diet encourages the growth of butyrate-forming bacteria.  This explains the decrease in colon cancer risk with higher fiber intake.

Treatment

This is brand new and really exciting.  The idea that the success of cancer treatment can be influenced by probiotic therapy is pretty radical.  Probiotic supplements can also be used to decrease unpleasant symptoms caused by conventional treatments.  For instance, probiotic supplements were successful in preventing and treating diarrhea caused by chemotherapy and abdominal and/or pelvic radiation.  

Ultimately, it is better to prevent than to treat cancer, right?  Prevention depends on a healthy diet based largely on plants with plenty of fiber.  Fiber may be the single most important nutrient we can take in our diet, as far as cancer prevention goes.  This is largely due to its profound influence on our intestinal microbiome.  Probiotic supplements have their role too as a way to fairly quickly influence the microbiome in a positive direction.

For those who are new to the blog and/or not aware, I choose Shaklee supplements for myself and my family.  I also recommend them for my patients and friends.  You can check this page to see why.  Click this link to browse my online store and this link to specifically check out the OptiFlora probiotic supplement.  Please feel free to email me with any questions you may have.

QUESTION: Are you concerned about your personal risk for cancer?  Do you get enough fiber in your diet?  Do you take a probiotic supplement?

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