Today’s trend towards natural methods for promoting health has made probiotics a hot topic. These ‘good’ bacteria promote health, balance and efficient functioning of the digestive system. They have a number of benefits and uses, and offer a proactive approach to health and well-being.
With the development of modern society, our way of life is changing both for the better and for the worse. New eating habits, ‘improved’ hygiene, widespread travel, increased use of pharmaceuticals and steadily rising levels of negative stress are all having an impact on our health. An area of interest is the common problems that may be caused by imbalances in the bacterial flora of the gastrointestinal tract (gut) resulting from our lifestyles today.
Traditional pharmaceuticals are not always effective in coping with these problems, and probiotic products may be needed to help us maintain our health and well-being. Selfcare and disease prevention are areas of health care that are also now receiving increased recognition, as their important roles in preventing disease and counteracting the effects of environmental hazards from pollution, harmful bacteria and chemicals are recognised.
WHAT IS A PROBIOTIC?
The term probiotic, which means ‘for life’ in Greek, is often applied to supplements containing live bacteria that provide a health benefit. Probiotics are defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) as ‘live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate quantities, confer a health benefit to the host’.1 These are essentially friendly bacteria belonging to the same families as those already living in our gut.
We all have billions of friendly bacteria living in our gut. Other names for these are intestinal flora, gut flora or microbiota. Over 400 different kinds of bacteria have been shown to live in our bowel. The most important and most common populations are the bifidobacteria and lactobacilli species.
Probiotics have been the subject of international studies since the middle of the twentieth century. Over the past few decades, research on probiotics has shown that supplementation with probiotic bacteria has several positive health-promoting effects. These friendly bacteria have a number of useful functions in our gut:
- They produce food (energy) for the intestinal cells.
- They help with the absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream.
- They form a barrier against harmful bacteria, and because they are so numerous they make it difficult for harmful bacteria to gain a ‘foothold’.
- A few produce chemicals, ‘natural antibiotics’ that kill harmful bacteria, viruses, fungi and yeasts.
- They prevent symptoms caused by antibiotic therapy, such as diarrhoea.
- They reduce the incidence and severity of infectious diarrhoea.
- They suppress the effects of certain toxins known to cause cancer.
- They help the immune system.
- They improve the symptoms of colic in babies.
- They improve bowel symptoms associated with lactose intolerance (difficulty in digesting milk).
- More recent studies are showing positive results for the use of probiotics in:
- Reducing allergies in children
- Maintaining oral health and managing gingivitis and periodontitis
- The treatment of inflammatory bowel disease
- Management of irritable bowel syndrome
- Reducing Helicobacter pylori in the stomach (and thereby gastritis and peptic ulcers)
- The treatment of yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis.
- For good health we rely on a harmonious balance of these friendly bacteria in our gut. An upset in the body’s natural balance can be caused by a number of different factors, including:
- Diarrhoea due to viruses and harmful bacteria
- Antibiotics, or other medications, that kill these friendly bacteria
- Operations on the bowel
- Conditions that cause abnormal motility of the bowel
- An unhealthy diet
- Emotional stress
- Radiotherapy or chemotherapy.
Medical science has a growing interest in the use of probiotics in health and disease. With this new interest researchers are setting out to evaluate probiotics more closely and scientifically. Well-designed studies are being undertaken to reveal which probiotic bacteria really show value in treating certain conditions.
It is important to remember that some probiotics are better than others, and that particular strains may be better for certain indications than others. The following are some factors to consider before buying a probiotic.
Human strain. The probiotic bacteria should be specific for humans. Probiotic bacteria from certain animals (animal strains) do not work as well in humans. The strain should be clearly shown on the label.
Dose. The recommended daily dose is 100 million live bacteria or 108 cfu (colony forming units). The dose is universal, i.e. the same for babies and adults. Remember that these live bacteria are sensitive to the environment and may be killed quickly if not stored correctly.
Survival. Most bacteria we swallow are killed by the strong stomach acid. Only a few probiotic bacteria are able to survive the stomach acid and the bile in the small intestine before they arrive in the gut. Once the probiotic bacteria get down into the gut they should be able to attach to the intestinal wall and grow.
Chemicals produced. It is an advantage if the probiotic produces a ‘natural antibiotic’ chemical that can kill harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi in the gut.
Safety. These are live bacteria, so it must be absolutely certain there is no risk that they will cause infection. Probiotics should have no adverse effects and be safe for all ages.
Clinically validated and documented health effects. The probiotic bacteria must have good scientific data to support their use for the specific indication, as well as for safety. It is also widely accepted in the scientific community that health benefits are strain-specific and cannot be inferred from data on other or similar strains of probiotic bacteria. Each strain has a unique set of characteristics.
The trend today is towards natural methods for promoting health rather than using long-term drug therapies. Probiotics offer a proactive approach to health and well-being.
References available on request