How polyphenols make probiotics work better

Probiotics in dietToday 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.


  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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)
  4. 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)
  5. 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)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

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This entry was posted in Zone Health and tagged , , , , , by Dr. Barry Sears. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr. Barry Sears

Dr. Barry Sears is a leading authority on the impact of the diet on hormonal response, genetic expression, and inflammation. A former research scientist at the Boston University School of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Sears has dedicated his research efforts over the past 30 years to the study of lipids. He has published more than 30 scientific articles and holds 13 U.S. patents in the areas of intravenous drug delivery systems and hormonal regulation for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. He has also written 13 books, including the New York Times #1 best-seller "The Zone". These books have sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and have been translated into 22 different languages.

27 thoughts on “How polyphenols make probiotics work better

  1. I’m back again to ask a question about egg whites? Do you view them as a concern for someone with RA? I started on a Paleo Diet about 2 1/2 weeks ago and all is fine. I followed your recommendation to stop eating yolks and switched to egg whites due to AA, yet I see comments on Paleo forums about egg white proteins causing issues, although to what extent I’m not sure. Is there something about the whites of eggs that I should also know about?

    Also, some 10 years ago I had my gallbladder removed after an out of the blue big time attack of gallstones. It doesn’t seem to affect my digestion very much, but is there some supplementation that I should be looking at to increase the effective digestion of the fats I’m consuming (lots of salmon,fish oil,etc)

    P.S. Thanks for the tip on the polyphenols and probiotics. I’ve been taking probiotics and taking 1-2 caps of your polyphenols plus, so that is good to know.
    (Also a grad of Indiana University) :)

    • Egg whites are the only source of high-quality protein that is free of arachidonic acid. Lower arachidonic acid, and you lessen the overall inflammatory load on the body. Eggs were an integral part of the food ingredients using in the paleolithic period. The yolks simply supply a lot of arachidonic acid. However, any protein has the potential to cause an allergic reaction. So just mix the egg whites with other source of low-fat protein (like buffalo).

      Without a gallbladder a low-fat diet is must. Egg whites will significantly help in that regard.

  2. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this blog article on polyphenols -

  3. I disagree with his point of view. As I mention in my blog the impact of polyphenols on gut flora is often overlooked. The blog also ignored the existing clinical data on the use of high levels of isolated polyphenols in treatment of metabolic syndrome. Finally he makes no mention of the role of polyphenols in the activation of AMP kinase, the key enzyme that regulates metabolism. It is one thing to have a point of view, but it is another not to be aware of published research.

  4. Hi Dr Sears
    Would you tell me the best form of supplementation with highly purified polyphenols? Would a punnet of blueberries equal the optimum amount per day or would one require more? I have box of tablets called Resveratrol ( 1 tablet ostensibly is the equivalent of 146 glasses of some red wine – written on the packet )! Seeing as I no longer drink alcohol specifically red wine can I achieve the same results with this tablet form and is this the type of supplementation you are referring to? I live In Australia and bought the resveratrol from a health food shop.

    Also would be very interested in your thoughts on a book published here called “Sweet Poison” by David Gillespie claiming the fructose half of sucrose, or what we know as table sugar, is the culprit for many of today’s health issues. These include mineral depletion, blood triglyceride elevation, cortical elevation, uric acid elevation and central adiposity. I have been off sugar now for at least six weeks and have noticed quite a difference in my general health. If I have a yen for something sweet instead of adding table sugar to the mix I add dextrose powder . As you would know table sugar is made up of glucose ( dextrose ) and fructose I have noticed some nagging eczema has gone, PMS is a thing of the past and I do not get energy lows in the afternoon. He doesn’t discourage fruit but sets a limit of 10mg of added sugar perday and is very wary of the “lite foods” that are high in sugar substitutes such as corn syrup and pure fructose. Sorry to go on, just thought you might be interesteed, can send you a copy if you would like.
    Thanks for your hard work and help over the years.
    Doreen Murrie
    Newcastle Australia

    • One measure of polyphenol potency is the ORAC units found in one serving. A pint of blueberries supplies about 12,000 ORAC units. A glass of red wine provides about 4,000 ORAC, whereas a glass of white wine supplies about 600 ORAC units. It is very doubtful if a single capsule resveratrol would supply 88,000 ORAC units (146 glasses of white wine). Usually a highly purified polyphenol capsule will supply about 8,000 ORAC units.

      Fructose is also the primary component of fruits (70%) and vegetables (30%). It is the amount of fructose consumed, not fructose itself that is the problem. As long as most of your carbohydrates come from vegetables and fruits, you will not have any metabolic problems with fructose especially if you are eating a protein adequate diet.

      I would be most interested in obtaining a copy and giving you a much detailed critique of its contents.

  5. I follwed the Zone diet many years ago and it worked great. Long story short, I purchased the two-week supply of Zone food recently and am so confused and frustrated with this program. I have read the books and know how to tabulate my blocks for Fat, Carbs & Proteins. However, I am so disappointed with the customer service assitance. I called twice and, both times, they were not sure of the info they were giving me. Example: “bag of bagel chips + 3T hummus = lunch”? was my question. Answer: “yes”. If this is true, then this is woefully insufficient food for a healthy, filling lunch. Where are the fruits & vegetables in this diet? I know they are a large part of this program but where/how do we fit them in? I am hoping I can get someone who can acurately describe this program or I will be returning the second box of food I received today and forget about the Zone. Thank you.

    • Juliana, the Zone is still the best way to get healthy and lose weight. Don’t throw out all the good part because they have gotten all fancy on you! You do not ever need to buy Zone foods (I never have and probably never will – just the fish oil because I do not want to cook fish all the time!) If you follow the original 1995 book, you should do just fine. I respect Dr Sears research, and he absolutely has things right with the macronutrient (protein, carb, fat) ratios. In my opinion, the new Zone foods are not needed because if you follow the plan with regular foods you do just fine and get used to eating the new way (very little grains and starch). It is not the end of the world to go off for a meal and have pasta or pizza – you will most likely feel crummy afterwards and say, “I do not want to eat like that very often” so that keeps you wanting to eat RIGHT. I went from 192 to 138 and it was one of the easiest things I have ever done. No gym, trainer, no guilt over indulgences – just walking regularly for exercise and eating right 95% of the time. I will not get fat again because it is EASY to be slim and healthy. Good luck!

      • Julie,
        Congrats on the weight you lost. Please help me to understand the Zone diet. I have tried to lose weight for a few years, no luck. I do exercise class, jogging and exercise tapes and try to diet but can’t lose weight. The Zone diet was recommended by my doctor, but it is confusing when reading the book. If I could have your help on understanding the way the Zone works, I would be very happy. Thank you and take care. Sherrie

    • Juliana, If you read all the info that comes with the Zone foods you will read a list of other things that you can add to the Zones foods. You can add vegetables on the list to any meal of Zone foods. You can have 2 fruits a day from the list. You can add 1 oz. of lean meat to a Zone meal. I find this very easy to do. I have lost 9.5 lbs in 2.5 weeks. I am happy.

    • I will definitely make an detailed inquiry into the type of service that you described.

      The ZoneFast program was developed to use the ZoneFast recipes that have been tested both in nutrient composition and taste in a test kitchen. They are rich in vegetables with selected amounts of fruits. The Zone Foods are simply ingredients in these tested recipes, but it is the Zone Protein in the Zone Foods that provides greater satiety that usually needed by someone starting out on the Zone diet. As they have success in managing their hunger and balancing their hormones with the ZoneFast meals, then they can begin to transition themselves into making traditional Zone meals that hopefully provide the same degree of satiety and hormonal balance. But you have to experience the benefits of being in the Zone so you can judge your success when trying to make Zone meals on your own.

  6. Dear Dr. Sears,

    In your blog you you said egg white protein was one of the better proteins because of the lack of arachidonic acid. Could you tell us how soy protein fares in comparison as far as arachidonic acid is concerned and do you feel soy protein is high quality protein for us to consume and the level of arachidonic acid in soy protein should or should not be of concern to us if used in the zone diet? ie. Does soy protein specifically increase overall inflamation in the body because it contains too much arachidonic acid?

    • Soy protein will contain no arachidonic acid since it comes from a plant source.

      The quality of soy protein (as measured by it amino acid composition) is not as high as egg whites (especially in terms of sulfur containing amino acids) so that is why I like egg whites better. All other forms of animal protein will contain some level of arachidonic acid.

  7. I am very interested in learning more about polyphenol/probiotics and how this affects the person without a gallbladder. I am experiencing drastic digestive issues ever since I had mine removed. I was never given a diet to follow through with and have seen countless Dr’s with no real results. Any helpful advice would be greatly appreciated.

    • The lack of a gall bladder only makes it more difficult to digest and absorb fat. It should have no impact the actions of polyphenols and probiotics and their potential reduction of inflammation of the bacteria in the gut.

  8. I have found safflower oil eliminates planter fasciitis. I’ve had hip replacement surgery which caused a similar irritation when I sit for long periods of time. I have been taking the safflower oil for about a week and have noticed significant improvement in my hip pain. I understand the oil is high in omega-3. Do you have any thoughts on why the safflower oil seems to have a very positive effect on this type of pain? Thanks for your reply.

    • Actually safflower oil is very high in omega-6 fatty acids. Initially these are metabolized to dihomo gamma linolenic acid (DGLA) which is the building block for powerful anti-inflammatory eicosanoids that will reduce pain. Unfortunately with time the DGLA will be transformed into arachidonic acid (AA) that is the building block of powerful pro-inflammatory eicosanoids that increase pain.

      I would start replacing the safflower oil with fish oil rich in EPA and DHA to help block the conversion of any DGLA into AA.

  9. If one was to take, for example, a therapeutic probiotic Dr. Sears like Lacteol lactobacillus starting colonies and take 8,000 ORAC unit polyphenol plus at the same time wouldn’t one offset the other? If polyphenols are antibiotics would they not inhibit the lactobacillus starting colony (Lacteol capsule) and act against gut flora, especially if they are in a powerful package (like Polyphenol Plus)? Thank you for your kind help Dr. Sears.

  10. Two recent articles shed some light on that question. The first (Hervert-Hernandez et al. Int J Food Microbiol 136:119-122 (2009)) indicated that grape polyphenols enhanced the growth of lactobacillus. The second article (Parkar SG et al. Int J Food Microbiol 124:295-298 (2008))
    indicated the polyphenols strongly inhibited pathogenic bacteria while at the same enhancing the growth of good bacteria (such as lactobacillus). It appears if you are trying to improve the balance of gut flora with probiotics, then taking high levels of polyphenols at the same time would be synergistic.

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