Probiotic’s are readily available to buy in stores across the world in the form of capsules, juices, yogurts, cereals, cookies and even pet food. But do we actually know what they are and how to use them?
“The popularity of probiotics has grown so much in recent years that manufacturers have even added the microorganisms to cosmetics and mattresses” – Scientific American
Much like ‘gluten free’, the word ‘probiotic’ has become a nutritional catch word taking the global health industry by storm. According to the National Institute of Health the number of people in the US taking probiotics and prebiotics more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2012 to almost four million. With a global market value of about 45 billion USD in 2017, it is forecast to reach about 64 billion dollars by 2022. Today’s microbiome craze sees probiotic supplements readily available to buy in stores across the world in the form of capsules, juices, yogurts, cereals, cookies and even pet food. But do we actually know what they are and how to use them?
Probiotics are manufactured microorganisms designed to mimic the ‘good’ native bacteria that live in our gut and are touted to help maintain digestive health and boost our immune systems. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are more bacteria in the gut than cells in the body; the last estimate predicts an impressive 39 trillion living in the large intestine. A healthy human gut contains 350 different bacteria (and hundreds of different strains), some essential to health, deemed ‘probiotic’, and some which just live there with no particular contribution. Whilst the quest to understand gut flora is still very much inconclusive, it is generally understood that the good bacteria fight off harmful microbial invaders, break down fibrous foods into more digestible components, and produce vitamins such as K and B12. Can probiotics successfully perform the same role?
In short, microbiology studies show no proven benefits to people who are already healthy. With probiotic capsules only providing between 100 million and a few hundred billion bacteria, “a probiotic is still just a drop in a bucket” says Shira Doron, infectious disease expert at Tufts Medical Centre. The particular strains of Bifidobacterium or Lactobacillus that are typically found in many yogurts and pills may not be the same kind that can survive the highly acidic environment of the human stomach and from there colonise the gut. Those that make it beyond the stomach acids tend to only make it to the small intestine, and those that make it to the large intestine are often too few in number to make a significant impact. Those that stay in the small intestine can create ‘brain-fog’ and for immune-compromised individuals, probiotics can lead to infections. As an unregulated industry, consumers do not know what they are buying nor the impact on their bodies as there is no size that fits all.
So, how and when should we use them, if at all?
There are specific times when it can be beneficial to take probiotics. The most common is when taking antibiotics. Antibiotics annihilate entire communities of beneficial bacteria whilst taking out the problem-causing microbes in the gut. Probiotics (especially resilient strains of Lactobacillus), can help to replenish and rebalance the gut flora, and can help shorten the symptoms of your illness. Research has shown that probiotics may also help alleviate symptoms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Irritable Bowl Syndrome, and reduce the duration of diarrhoea caused by gastronenteritis. When given to pregnant and breast-feeding mothers, probiotics are also thought to reduce development of Eczema and Asthma allergies in their infants. Some suggest that that probiotics can help babies with colic and reflux. For these specific conditions, you should always consult your doctor and nutritionist.
When choosing probiotics, it is very important to look for the correct medley of strains that work with your body. This can be difficult if you are not following a nutritional program or if your stool has not been analysed by a laboratory for specific bacterial imbalances as everyone’s gut is different and will respond differently to different strains. As a general guideline, probiotics containing 100 billion bacteria are suggested for adults when on antibiotics or suffering gastrointeritis, and for day to day the general guideline by manufacturers are 30 billion. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are the most common and well researched strains to look for. It is also recommended to choose live probiotics over freeze dried. For a probiotic to work it needs to reach the lower parts of the digestive tract, after the stomach, and it needs to be alive and able to rapidly divide and establish a population in the small and/or large intestine.
UK probiotics company, Symprove, claims to be the only probiotic on the market that provide four strains of live, activated bacteria. According their research, “Lactobacillus and Enterococcus probiotic bacteria are able to survive the hostile environment of the stomach to reach and then populate the small and large intestine”. They use a live multi-strain liquid bacteria derived from barley which allows the bacteria to survive the low pH of the stomach and bile salts of the upper digestive tract.
For babies, the most recommended strains are Lactobacillus reuteri, for colic and digestion, and B Bifidum, one of the first strains to appear in an infant’s intestines and B Infantis which contribute to nutrient absorption, combating bloating and breaking down of lactic acid in breast milk. There are numerous brands such as Wellements and Gryph & IvyRose catering for infant guts, however, it is not advised to give babies probiotics unless supervised by a Pediatrician.
“There is huge hype around gut microbiota, studies on it are cool at the moment, and because of this hype people are taking all these probiotics. But the scientific data showing probiotics (are medically helpful) is not there.” – Cell Journal