You can’t sit through a single ad break without being flooded with promises about probiotics ‘helping you beat that bloated feeling’ and improving your gut bacteria. And whilst paying extra for the supposed beneficial effects is fantastic for the probiotic market, which hit $2.90 billion in 2015 and is expected to continue to grow, you don’t want to be forking out extra money unless there’s something in it for you. But are the promises of reduced bowel problems, bloating and even some cancers really scientifically robust or is it just an excuse to pinch your extra pennies? Let’s analyse whether probiotics are a corporative scam or the secret to a healthy gut.
But bacteria are always bad, aren’t they?
One of the promises of probiotics is helping improve your gut bacteria, but surely bacteria in your body isn’t a good thing? Don’t worry! There are 100 trillion bacteria living in your gut weighing at around 1-2kg but the large majority, believed to be over 90%, help metabolism, digestive function, absorption of nutrients and the immune system. Therefore you’re ‘good’ bacteria are essential to keeping you alive! Probiotics, which are live microorganisms which confer a health benefit on the host, function within the human body by increasing ‘good’ bacteria. This is especially important in the elderly, those on an antibiotic course or for balancing out the good-bad bacteria within people with high numbers of bad bacteria. But how well does this really work?
A waste of money or a cure for intestinal problems?
Good bacteria Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria are the most commonly used probiotics worldwide. But can they actually better your health? Studies pretty much universally say yes! Good news if you are a sufferer of bowel problems, bloating, reduced immunity or even urinary tract infections. Studies have shown Bifidobacteria to be beneficial for improving immunity, increasing cell phagocytosis (which is part of the body’s defence), reducing the severity of symptoms and duration of respiratory infections and targeting lysis (cell breakdown). Scientific research has also shown Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria to be beneficial against diarrhoea, a killer of 1.5million children annually worldwide according to the UN, and in particular antibiotic-associated diarrhoea (AAD) and traveller’s diarrhoea. In a 1997 study, it was shown that consuming adequate amounts (discussed later) of Lactobacillus reduces the risk of Traveller’s diarrhoea by half, even in those with a prior history and a 2007 meta-analysis (an overview of many research papers) showed probiotics to be hugely beneficial in comparison to placebos on treating diarrhoea.
One of the main probiotic claims, made by large commercial companies such as ‘Renew Life’ or ‘Bio-K+ Probiotics’, is reduction of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Common IBS complaints have all been shown to reduce with probiotics including, abdominal pain, bloating and flatulence. Emerging research has also linked them to having beneficial effects on reducing risk of colorectal cancer, stress and even depression! (although more research needs to be done before these claims should be seen as reliable). It must, however, be remembered that probiotics do not work like drugs. Although they can reduce the severity of diseases they cannot cure them and just because probiotics work for some people, it doesn’t mean the same effect will happen for everyone.
Don’t forget about prebiotics!
The alternative option, prebiotics, work slightly differently to probiotics, but can still be very helpful in enhancing ‘gut friendly bacteria’. They still increase the number of ‘good’ bacteria within the gut, but they do this by acting as fuel, allowing them to produce substances that acidify the colon. These have been shown in research to improve IBS symptoms, diarrhoea, immune function and mineral absorption! Interestingly some research has also linked them to reducing metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms including obesity, high blood pressure and fasting glucose and low HDL (‘good cholesterol’). So, prebiotics, such as galactooligosaccharides and inulin, could help reduce obesity risk as well as helping fight bad bacteria!
How much do we need?
However, despite the health benefits, we can’t be guzzling down Activia yogurts one after another for the foreseeable future, as that would certainly be detrimental to the goal of healthy eating. So, how much probiotic do we really need? Although some studies differ, the aim should be to consume 1 x 109 viable cells in order to achieve the desired impact. This number is high due to the fact that much of the probiotic bacteria will die on their way to the gut, due to stomach acids breaking them down and other aspects of digestion, before they can be beneficial. However, each strain is different and therefore, there is no set dosage for each condition, but, with few side effects currently shown in studies, it is still worth trying to get natural pro and prebiotics through yogurts, Kefir and Sauerkraut.
A small price for better health
So, if you are an IBS sufferer, you want to increase your gut health or you face any of the other conditions discussed earlier, you may want to start consuming pre or probiotics. However, it’s important to do your research, find out what supplements are most beneficial for your condition and consult a trained professional if the problems don’t go away. It should also be noted that probiotics are far from a ‘magical cure’ and should not be used as an alternative to a healthy, balanced diet. However, next time you’re doing your weekly shop, spare a thought for your gut bacteria and spend that little extra on probiotics!