Focus on Probiotics
Bacteria are in plentiful supply not only in our environment but also our bodies. They can be found on areas such as skin, nose, teeth and tongue, they are not only found ‘on’ the body but also ‘in’ the body, the most favourable site for bacterial growth is the large intestine and is known as gut flora. Don’t be concerned about this it is perfectly normal for bacteria to be found within these places, we may think of bacteria as being harmful organisms as many do cause disease but some are actually beneficial in fact we couldn’t survive without them. Many bacteria that we carry round on our body surfaces and gut actually help protect us by fending off harmful organisms known as pathogens.
The role of bacteria in the gut is particularly important, healthy gut bacteria or what you have probably heard referred to as ‘our friendly bacteria’ helps: –
- Keep our immune system activated in order to fend off harmful bacteria from entering the gut.
- Aids the digestion of hard to digest food such as some sources of fibre, by doing so they provide a source of energy for the cells that line our gut.
- Help keeping the gut moving so reducing the risk of constipation.
- Helps make vital vitamins such as the production of vitamin K and some B vitamins.
So you can see what an important role they play and the delicate balance of gut flora can be upset by various factors and these include, use of antibiotics, viral infections, food poisoning and stress. These can wipe out the body’s supply of good bacteria and cause an overgrowth of harmful bacteria that are normally kept at bay. This can lead to various problems such as diarrhoea and incomplete digestion of food and hence poor absorption of nutrients.
Probiotics: Probiotics are live bacteria that are added to food items, most commonly fermented dairy produce such as milk drinks and yoghurts but also in fruit juices, breakfast cereals, ‘shot’ drinks and also in dietary supplements. Lactic acid is the most common bacteria used, hence the fermented dairy produce, as they are able to survive passage through the stomach and small intestine and contribute to the balance of our gut flora. Several strains of Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei and certain bifidobacteria appear to possess this characteristic. Taking probiotic foods may help to restore the balance of the gut flora if it has been disturbed maybe due to antibiotics or infection and help repopulate the gut with healthy bacteria.
The potential benefits listed for the use of probiotics include: –
- Improving intestinal health and digestion such as reducing constipation, diarrhoea, bloating so possibly helping those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
- Reduced incidence and duration of diarrhoea, associated with travellers diarrhoea, antibiotic use and viral infections.
- Reducing symptoms of lactose intolerance
A note about Prebiotics:
A prebiotic is a nutrient that specifically stimulates the growth of lactobacilli or bifidobacteria (probiotics). The idea is that they are beneficial to us as they basically provide a food source for ‘our friendly bacteria’ in order to enhance the health benefits of the normal gut flora. Some food products actually contain a combination of pre and probiotics.
What’s the Evidence?
- The majority of the evidence is for the use of probiotics is in managing diarrhoeal diseases in particular antibiotic associated diarrhoea, viral infections and travellers’ diarrhoea.
- Some studies have a beneficial effect such as a decrease in bloating and pain in Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
- The use of probiotics in Inflammatory Bowel conditions such as Crohns and Colitis have received mixed results. In Crohns no clear benefits have been demonstrated as yet, although In Ulcerative Colitis studies have shown extended remission periods between flare-ups.
- There has been research into the use of probiotics in reducing the risk of developing conditions such as arthritis, eczema, allergies and even bowel cancer. The evidence is limited in this area as yet.
If you decide to take a probiotic you need to be taking it on a regular basis, (i.e. daily) in order to obtain the benefits. Taking a probiotic yoghurt drink for example once a week will not allow sufficient numbers of healthy bacteria to accumulate in the gut. There is controversy over which ones to take and whether some products actually work, the best advice is to purchase a product that has been thoroughly tested and contains the levels of bacteria indicated. These include products such as Yakult, Actimel (Danone), Proviva (Skane Dairy), LC1 (Nestle) and dietary supplements such as Multibionta (Seven Seas), supermarkets own-brands are also thought to be effective.