Here at Evolve, interest in health and wellbeing related issues spans beyond our working hours. For instance, our Centre Manager Renata, has recently done a thorough investigation into the usefulness of probiotics. We partnered with wellbeing writer Susie Vandi to help us digest all the findings and share them with you.
PROBIOTICS - A PRO OR A CON
Probiotic products captured the UK public’s imagination just over twenty years ago with the introduction of live bacteria infused fermented milk drinks. As unappetising as this might sound, their claims of boosting immune systems and improving digestive health made them an instant hit with customers up and down the country.
Fast forward to today and probiotics are firmly rooted in the mainstream. The UK spends around three quarters of a billion pounds annually on probiotic products and 60% of UK households regularly buy probiotic drinks. It’s safe to say that ‘good bacteria’ have become a firm fixture on our high streets and you can find strains of these microbes added to drinks, yoghurts and a variety of other human and pet foods at your local supermarket. The probiotic market does indeed seem built to last but are they the miracle cure all that they’re claimed to be or are they simply snake oil in disguise?
WHAT ARE PROBIOTICS AND WHAT DO THEY DO
According to the World Health Organisation, probiotics (meaning ‘For life’) are, “Live microorganisms which confer a health benefit on the host.” People have been consuming these microorganisms for centuries in the form of fermented foods but the concept of using them to alter gastrointestinal flora and bring the body back into balance by replacing “harmful microbes with useful microbes” was attributed to Russian scientist and Nobel laureate Élie Metchnikoff in 1907.
In healthy humans, trillions of highly complex strains of bacteria, yeasts, fungi and parasites exist naturally in and on our bodies but the majority are found in our gut. 80% of our immune system is situated in our digestive tract and many health issues have their origins here so our gut is crucial to our health. In good health we have around an 85% to 15% ratio of good to bad bacteria in our bodies. These play a key part in helping us absorb nutrients and fight infection. However, a higher ratio of bad bacteria, can lead to an imbalance causing candida, skin disorders, frequent colds and flu and a host of digestive conditions.
This overgrowth of harmful bacteria may occur as a result of antibiotic use, antibiotic residue found in meat products, a high carbohydrate diet, modern food processing methods, stress, excessive drinking, sugar, heavily treated tap water and foods grown in nutrient poor soils. All of these things can overthrow the good bacteria.
The good news is that we can replace the friendly bacteria and bring the body back to a state of homeostasis through diet by eating fermented foods like sauerkraut, yoghurt, kimchi, apple cider vinegar, tempeh and miso. We can also consume prebiotics foods like onions, asparagus, artichokes, garlic and chicory which arrive in the colon in a partially digested state and go on to ferment in the gut feeding growth of the good bacteria. Alternatively, we can use convenient on-the-go probiotic drinks and supplements. Or can we?
Despite the proliferation of probiotic supplements and food products, there hasn’t to date been a great deal of scientific research on probiotic additives. The small number of clinical trials that have taken place, haven’t provided enough evidence to support the claimed benefits. On top of this every individual has a completely different internal composition of highly complex microbes so any probiotic is likely to have a different effect on different people.
In an interview with Stat News, Stephen Allen, a professor of paediatrics at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine was quoted as saying ““The word ‘probiotic,’ meaning beneficial to health, is probably a term we use too liberally. The whole field is under a bit of a cloud.” “There’s no doubt that the gut interacting with bacteria has important effects, but, we’re a long way from fully understanding that interaction, much less developing products to improve it.”
Some trials that have taken place have shown that probiotic strains such as Bifidobacterium Infantis, Saccharomyces Boulardii, Bifidobacterium bifidum appear to be effective in relieving some of the symptoms of IBS, ulcerative colitis and diarrhoea. There is also some evidence that high doses of some probiotics can prevent children getting ADD but there isn’t any proof of their efficacy in relieving other conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, thrush, eczema or in boosting the immune system.
As a result of this, The European Food Safety Authority has rejected all submitted health claims for probiotics stating that “The food additives were either so general as to be inadmissible, or could not be shown to have the claimed effect." This means that probiotic products in Europe aren’t allowed to claim to boost the immune system or help digestion in any way and as it’s a non-validated health claim, EU regulators won’t allow the use of the word probiotic on products.
TO TAKE OR NOT TO TAKE, THAT IS THE QUESTION
So is it worth taking probiotic products and supplements?
Probiotics are thought to be safe for healthy adults (Although they are contraindicated for people with weakened immune systems and premature babies). There is however, a quality control problem because probiotics are classed as food and not medicine, meaning they don’t have to undergo the same high standards of testing. There’s no guarantee that if you buy a product that says it contains 15 billion microbes you’ll get 15 billion microbes or that the amount of microbes that you get will be enough to have the desired effect on your health. There’s also a quantum leap of difference between the probiotics that are laboratory tested and the probiotics that are on sale in our stores.
So what to do? In the words of Hippocrates, you can ‘Let food be your medicine’ and get your dose of probiotics through your diet. Add more prebiotics and fermented foods and eliminate foods that inhibit the growth of good bacteria in your gut. Ideally get the help of a registered dietician.
If getting probiotics from your diet isn’t convenient for you, then by all means investigate the additive and supplement route but try to ensure that you follow these tips:
- The microbes need to be alive to work so if your product isn’t heat stabilised it will likely need to be refrigerated.
Probiotics come in many different strains and concentrations.
- Many microbes will die on the journey from the factory to your gut so choose a high potency quality product with billions of colony forming units and make sure that your product isn’t nearing it’s expiration date.
- Different strains of live bacteria are suitable for different conditions so do your research to make sure that the strains that you have chosen are suitable for your needs.
- Ensure your diet doesn’t work against the probiotics.
Take your probiotics daily.
Good luck on your healthy adventures!
Written by Susie Vandi.