We have all heard the term probiotics banded around. But what exactly are they?
Probiotics are simply live yeasts or bacteria. These microscopic organisms can live practically everywhere, including on and inside our bodies, especially our gut.
A lot of people think of bacteria as ‘bad,’ and indeed, there are some bacteria that can make us ill. E.Coli and Listeria are two headline making examples of dangerous bacteria.
Other types of ‘bad’ bacteria often lives in us harmlessly, but can start to have detrimental effects when their numbers get too high.
In order to keep the growth of this pathogenic bacteria at bay, we have a lot of ‘good’ or beneficial bacteria to combat it. These have a myriad of functions to perform, all of which are essential to our optimal health.
So how does our body become populated with this beneficial bacteria in the first place?
Babies are essentially bacteria-free in the womb, but they ingest their mother’s bacteria as they pass through the birth canal. From that moment onwards, our bodies are in constant contact with these microorganisms, whether it’s on the food we eat or ingested during outdoor play.
The interplay of good and bad bacteria leave a lot of people confused.
We’re encouraged to avoid bacteria (for example, through the use of antibacterial hand soap), yet bacteria is now increasingly being sold to us as essential components of healthy foods.
This issue is what makes the concept of probiotics, bacteria packaged up to be eaten, difficult to understand.
Again, the key to understanding goes back to the balance of bacteria in one’s body.
So many things can upset this delicate balance, such as antibiotics and other medications, cleaning products, a high-sugar diet, and even everyday stress! Modern life is often far from being ‘healthy bacteria’-friendly, which is possibly why ‘probiotics’ is becoming such an important buzzword.
We Have Friendly Bacteria in our Tummy. So What?
These friendly microorganisms, or microflora, keep pathogens or harmful microorganisms at manageable levels.
They also aid in the proper digestion and absorption of nutrients, and are a vital component of immune function in the gut. Microflora have been shown to have a positive effect on skin issues, as well as urinary and vaginal infections.
Probiotics also synthesize vitamins such as certain B vitamins, vitamin K, and some short chain fatty acids.
Probiotics can have a very beneficial effect on chronic gastrointestinal issues such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, as well as short-term symptoms like diarrhoea or constipation.
Recent, exciting research is now showing a close connection between the gut and brain, and much of this connection is embedded in our microbiome – our balance of healthy/unhealthy bacteria.
So What Do Scientists Think About These Little Microorganisms?
Probiotics are growing in popularity.
Their functions are so integral to our health, and their numbers within our gut so great (our gut bacteria can weigh up to 2 kg), that some scientists describe our gut bacteria as an organ in itself. However, some scientists, such as Michael Fischbach, an assistant professor of bioengineering and therapeutic sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, are still sceptical.
According to Fischbach: “Consumers have shown to be willing to spend the money, just in case [probiotics] work...What we all have to be careful about is to not view them as a panacea and to make sure that we don't raise our expectations too high."
However, other scientists are excited by developments in this field.
Stefano Guandalini, MD, Section Chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition at the University of Chicago, spoke optimistically about the surge of interest in and research on probiotics in a November 2014 interview for Science Life.
But while it’s clear that probiotics have a beneficial impact on our bodies, scientists have a difficult time determining the activities and processes behind that impact is brought about. Guandalini believes this relationship is unique to each and every one of us.
‘When we are talking about personalized medicine, we are really talking about the microbiome: how to understand all the subtle interactions with the human host, and how to possibly exploit this for health reasons. It’s an incredibly interesting area, and my colleagues here at the University of Chicago, and others are actively working on this. We aren’t there yet, but we will. I have great enthusiasm in this. I think this is the medicine of the future.’
This last point in particular is very valid.
The benefits of probiotics are becoming clear, but our knowledge regarding the best way to administer them, which strains, and when remains murky. Regardless, the recent increase in research conducted on probiotics is undeniable, as is much of that research’s scope and validity.
What the Clinical Trials Say
For example, one of the world’s largest clinical studies on probiotics to date looked at the already established gastrointestinal benefits of Bifidobacteirum lactis BB-12®. This research, involving 1,200 participants, showed that this particular strain BB-12® can make significant improvements in a person’s regularity.
Why is this relevant?
Because scientists like to refer to large clinical trials when deciding if something is scientifically relevant or not, making this trial the potential basis of a medical consensus on the issue.
Clinical trials have been performed on the strains Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM® and Bifidobacterium lactis Bl-04 with their effect on immunity in mind. One particular trial found that these strains could alleviate birch pollen allergies, while another showed that these strains reduced fever, colds and time off school in children aged 3-5.
However, it’s not just about the gut -- did you know that healthy bacteria have also now been shown to be beneficial for female intimate health?
The strains Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1® and Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14® have over 30 years of scientific evidence, with 26 published clinical trials involving over 2,500 women. These strains have been shown to help alleviate thrush, cystitis and Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) in varying degrees. One study showed a 70% decrease in symptoms and yeast cell counts in women taking this combination of probiotic strains compared with those of a control group.
It’s important to note here that these particular strains are known to reach the vaginal passage and colonise here.
On the flip side, there is not a lot of evidence to suggest that they adhere to the gut wall, suggesting that these particular bacteria are really only beneficial for the vaginal tract. How bacteria know where they are meant to go and what their particular jobs are is still an enigma, but the scientific confirmation of their ability to do so is only further evidence their importance.
People have been aware of the potential benefits of probiotics for gastrointestinal issues, the immune system and skin health for a while. But more recently there has been a surge of interest in the effect of gut bacteria on mood and emotion.
A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that the two strains Lactobacillus acidophilus Rosell-52 and Bifidobacterium longum Rosell-175 could bring about a significant improvement in psychological distress, anxiety, depression, and anger-hostility. The same strain L. acidophilus Rosell-52 was also shown to help improve sleep in elderly subjects.8
Granted, these last studies mentioned are not huge but the number of them is growing suggesting that these little bugs are getting under researchers’ skin!
Investment into Research
It has been suggested in Nature Magazine that the ‘microbial landscape’ in our bodies has attracted US$500 million in research since 2008 in the US. And the EU has just put a whopping 9M Euros towards a five-year project called ‘MyNewGut,’ which targets how our gut is linked to brain development and disorders.
This in itself is a huge indication that scientists are seeing potential in probiotics and their l effects on the human body.
So do Sciencists approve?
So do these points actually answer the question as to whether scientists approve of probiotics?
Probably the increase in research in this area suggests that scientists believe there is something very valid about probiotics and are becoming more and more interested and convinced of their benefits.
However, everyone has a different opinion, and scientists probably never reach a final consensus on any one single issue. Still, there’s no denying the growing body of research showing that various strains of probiotics do have an effect on particular aspects of our health.
The one thing that is missing still in some cases, as pointed out by scientists, is a concrete evidence of actually how these bacteria work, their ‘method of action.’ However, it appears that scientists and the medical world are keen to find out.
Considering that research has brought to light disturbing statistics which suggest that around 23% of the world’s population suffer from a wide range of gastro-intestinal symptoms, 1 in 4 people in the UK will suffer from mental health issues in their life, and in 2001 the World Health Organisation estimated that around 450 million people worldwide had a mental health problem.
It is plausible that scientists and the medical world alike are looking to find new solutions to these problems.
Interestingly, GPs and pharmacies are now increasingly recommending probiotics to patients taking antibiotics, suggesting a growing acceptance that these little bugs are indeed beneficial and worthy of scientific approval.
Interestingly also an article titled, ‘Probiotics for the hospital setting’ has literally just been published in the Gastrointestinal Nursing Journal.
Is this an indication of things to come?