Although we don’t completely understand how our gut bacteria make chemotherapy work better, one study found that chemotherapy causes our gut to become leaky, enabling intestinal bacteria to enter the bloodstream and the lymph nodes. Once in the lymph nodes, these bacteria stimulate our immune system and enhance the body’s ability to fight cancer.
These findings are profound, as we did not previous know that the health of our intestinal flora might be an important factor that could tip the balance for patients on whether their cancer treatment is effective or not.
There are many things that negatively impact the health of our gut flora, so it seems quite compelling to do everything we can to maintain these ‘good’ organisms.
One simple recommendation I give when I counsel my patients on nutrition is to encourage them to consume plenty of probiotic and prebiotic foods or take a probiotic supplement every day as a means to help support their gut health.
What are probiotics and prebiotics?
Probiotics are edible products containing ‘good’ bacteria that normally live in our intestines. You can either consume probiotic rich foods (kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, miso soup, natto, pickles, tempeh, spirulina algae, etc.) or take a high quality probiotic supplement with numerous species of ‘good’ bacteria.
Prebiotics are non-digestible fibers that serve as the food to keep your ‘good’ bacteria healthy. You can either consume prebiotic rich foods (asparagus, garlic, leek, onion, artichoke, etc.) or take a supplement.
I typically recommend a combined approach for my patients– consume foods rich in probiotics & prebiotics and take a high quality probiotic (with billions of colonies of multiple species of ‘good’ bacteria) combined with a prebiotic supplement.
‘Good’ bacteria and our health
In recent years, researchers have begun to explore and report on how the specific make up of our intestinal flora (bacteria) impacts on our health.
It seems that when we have the proper mix of ‘good’ flora in the intestines our body is able to:
- Detoxify and eliminate chemicals and carcinogens more readily (and potentially reduce cancer development)
- Increase its ability to absorb nutrients and water from our food more efficiently, make vitamins and metabolize bile acids and hormones
- Promotes a healthful metabolism and body composition
- Reduce systemic inflammation and oxidative stress (free radicals)
- Enhance the strength of our immune system
- Support our mental health (i.e. improved mood, reduced depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc.)
- Respond better to chemotherapy drugs (i.e. cisplatin, oxaliplatin, cyclophosphamide)
- Have less intestinal side effects from radiation therapy for cancers in the abdomen and pelvis
Don’t kill off your ‘good’ bacteria or else…
When our gut flora are healthy we are healthy...however, if we kill off our ‘good’ gut bacteria all of the above bodily functions are negatively affected. Once the ‘good’ guys are killed off, the ‘bad’ bacteria start to move in and take over (this is sometimes called intestinal “dysbiosis”). This take over of the ‘bad’ bacteria is most often a silent take over (asymptomatic), so you will likely have no way of knowing it is happening inside you without testing your poop (see more below about this).
We are beginning to understand that many things can kill off these ‘good’ bacteria (or cause an overgrowth of the ‘bad’ bacteria), such as:
- Chronic stress
- Not eating enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein
- Consuming too much sugar and simple carbohydrates
- Certain medications: (i.e. antibiotics, chemotherapy, steroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, acid-blocking medications, etc.)…there is even research suggesting that taking a single course of antibiotics can permanently kill off healthy gut bacteria
- Artificial sweeteners (i.e. Splenda)
Should you test your poop for the ‘bad’ guys?
Unless you have infectious diarrhea, you are not likely going to know if you have an overgrowth of organisms (i.e. ‘bad’ bacteria, parasites, yeast) in your gut that shouldn’t be there. Sending a sample of your poop to a lab is the only way to know what’s going on inside.
The science of analyzing gut flora to identify organisms that may impact our health is in the earliest stages of development. Since we don’t yet know enough about this emerging area of medicine, most conventional physicians will tell you not to test for these organisms as they likely have no major influence on your health…after all, they don’t cause obvious infections or symptoms.
I recommend a stool analysis as a component of the integrative oncology program I developed to help make the participant’s body less conducive to cancer development, growth and recurrence.
One of the most common stool tests I use will identify ‘bad’ organisms that can be treated with either natural botanical products or drugs. Without treatment, these organisms can serve as a source of hidden inflammation in your gut and potentially negatively impact your entire body.
- If you are interested in really diving deep into your stool flora and you are willing to enter a large scale clinical study, the “American Gut Project” will analyze all the organisms in your stool (for $99) and compare them against the other study participants with the goal of eventually hoping to learn what factors affecting your gut bacteria impact health (i.e. your age, what you eat, whether you have kids or pets, whether you smoke or drink and how much, where you live and have lived before, etc.)
The Bottom Line:
Do everything you can to stop killing your ‘good’ bacteria (see the list above) and consume a diet rich in both probiotic and prebiotic foods. Take a supplement if you want to get even more of these healthful organisms in your system. Consider stool testing as part of a integrative oncology program to help identify and treat any ‘bad’ organisms that may be serving as a source of hidden inflammation in your body. Schedule your consult today (for cancer patients, survivors and those who don’t have cancer) to learn how you can make your body less conducive to cancer development, growth and recurrence.