Researchers discover the future of probiotics—in a traditional African tribe

As you know, there is something that always bothered me about attempts to “restore” normal gut bacteria (microbiome) and claims of probiotic supplements. While western medicine has come to realize that the intestinal microbiome is responsible for many aspects of human health and nutrition, they have one big problem: Nobody really has any idea what  “normal” gut bacteria are ! So the “natural know-it-alls” who recommend probiotic supplements don’t have a true basis for their recommendations. (See the article “Microscopic bugs may hold the secret to transforming your health,” in the January 2013 issue of Insiders’ Cures.*)

But now, for the first time ever, a group of German scientists studied the gut microbiome of a traditional hunter-gatherer society—the Hazda people of Tanzania, Africa. And they made some discoveries that will change everything you thought you knew about probiotics.

Of course, before I get to those groundbreaking insights, I can’t help but point out, once again, that these important revelations didn’t come from the hallowed halls of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

There, they seem to have three major requirements for “leading” research in nutritional medicine and natural approaches: (1) that you have no background whatsoever in nutrition or in a relevant field, (2) that you have failed at whatever field of science you were supposed to be good at, and (3) you are a government bureaucrat that they can never get rid of, but don’t want you working on anything they really care about at NIH (namely, research on drug development and invasive procedures).

But in Germany anthropologists, ecologists, biologists and analytical chemists work together to further understanding of human nutrition. And they take a real approach to science. They understand that  for every laboratory-based scientist, they need three other scientists who know how to work outside the laboratory—in the real world, surrounded by the Nature they are studying.

The Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, is one such place.  Max Planck was actually one of the founders of quantum physics in the early 20th century. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics and is known for the all-important “Planck constant” (which relates the energy of electro-magnetic radiation to its wavelength).

But real science knows no bounds. And the institute named after Planck isn’t limited to studying quantum physics. Instead, the researchers at the Planck Institute take a truly scientific approach to understanding the world as a whole—including human health. (And they have maintained their ties to Tanzania, formerly known as German East Africa, for those who have seen John Huston’s “The African Queen.”)

Modern living leads to a less diverse microbiome—and more disease

These scientists had the wisdom to understand that the western diet has become so homogenous and deviant from natural human dietary experiences, it no longer can give an accurate window into the “normal” microbiome. So the Max Planck researchers traveled thousands of miles to Tanzania to find a population whose lifestyle—and microbiome—is closer to that of our  ancestors.

And, in fact, they discovered that the Hazda people harbor a unique microbiome pattern with features never before seen in any human group.[1] This “original” microbiome shows far more diversity among the different kinds of probiotic bacteria compared to the limited range of probiotics in modern microbiomes, or so-called probiotic supplements.

Low microbiome bacterial diversity is associated with several increasingly common diseases in western populations including colon cancer, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcerative colitis.

Also, for the first time, the Max Planck scientists observed a difference between the microbiomes of men and of women.  The female microbiome appears more adapted to normal reproductive and hormonal functions.  As I’ve mentioned before, these reproductive and hormonal factors are the real keys in determining women’s risk of breast cancer. So perhaps there really is a link between breast cancer and diet after all—although National Cancer Institute (NCI) research has been looking in all the wrong places (see my report Classified Cancer Answers*).

Of course, while I was a scientist at NCI, 25 years ago, some of my colleagues and I performed an analysis on the largest research data base then available.  We found a clear connection between intestinal function and breast cancer. This finding was published in the American Journal of Public Health. Yet our political bosses at NCI told us to discontinue this line of work because it was based on the idea there was a connection to the gut microbiome, which they considered a “discounted” theory from early 20th century naturopathic  medicine. But, as this new research on the Hazda people shows, the microbiome connection to disease is anything but a “discounted theory.”

So what do these new findings mean for you?

Balance your microbiome naturally

Well, first of all, the work of the Max Planck scientists raises an important question for all of us. How can natural-know-it-alls, or clueless natural products manufacturers, offer any so-called “probiotic” supplement to “normalize” the natural human gut microbiome when they have no idea what “normal” really is?

(It’s like the problem with vitamin K supplements, which we discussed inthe May issue.*)

For instance, the Hazda people have high levels of some probiotics that are considered “unhealthy” by western doctors and low levels of some probiotics that are considered “healthy” here.

Another important take-away lesson from this new research? No single-strain probiotic supplement (like acidophilus) can be effective because the body naturally needs a mixture of probiotics.

So, with these two lessons in mind (as well as the other drawbacks I explained in the January 2013 issue of Insiders’ Cures*), beware taking probiotic supplements.  It’s best to support your microbiome the way the Hazda people do—and the way our ancestors always did: by eating healthy foods.

There are several food sources of healthy bacteria (probiotics) in foods that, when eaten regularly, can help keep your microbiome balanced.

Yogurt and cheese are two of the easiest to find. But raw milk may be even more effective—if you can get it. Unfortunately, raw milk is forbidden by many nanny state governments. To find a source near you, visit

Traditionally cultured foods like sauerkraut or Korean kim chi are also good dietary sources of probiotics. Soy sauces and fish sauces and pastes from East and Southeast Asia are other good food sources of probiotics. Even home-brewed beer and wine can be a good, natural source of probiotics—as long as they haven’t been pasteurized. (Plus, you get the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption.)

In addition to these probiotic foods which introduce and help maintain healthy microbes, there are also some foods that can help nurture the normal microbiome itself. Artichoke, barley, beans, green, leafy vegetables, and oats all naturally promote and support the growth of “good” bacteria that are already present in the GI tract.


[1] “Gut microbiome of the Hadza hunter-gatherers.” Nat Commun. 2014 Apr 15;5:3654