To understand probiotics we have to look at our bodies in a slightly different way that ignores physical appearance and vital organs and get down to a strange tiny world that sees microorganisms – bacteria, fungi and archea, living all over and inside our bodies.
It is estimated that between 500 and 1000 types of bacteria live in the human gut alone and that our bodies contain trillions of these tiny life forms.
Bacteria makes up 90% of your living cells and fall into recognisable species types. Seen under a high-powered microscope, the body resembles a strange landscape inhabited by three tailed creatures, multi legged cells and fabulously weird globular shapes all appearing to exist like the simple inhabitants of some weird lunar landscape.
We are all walking around with the E coli bacteria, the MRSA superbug Bacterium Clostridium Difficile and the bacteria which causes stomach ulcers – Helibactor Pylori all present in our intestines and gut.
These microorganisms do not cause medical problems unless the environment they live in becomes unbalanced causing the bacteria to multiply.
Not all bacteria are bad. There are good guys among these bacteria too.
So called friendly flora present in the intestine or gut help keeps the balance of the gut stable by inhibiting dangerous food bacteria and preventing them from growing. These “good bacteria” are also known as probiotics. Dangerous or bad bacteria are known as pathogens.
When you start looking at this complex and tiny world, it seems to make sense to assume that introducing more dietary probiotics into your diet and then your gut may help your body’s good bacteria maintain good health. We have all seen the yoghurt adverts that promote this idea of good bacteria for health and millions of people take regular probiotic supplements as a result.
Probiotics were first defined in 1965 when scientists identified that some bacteria could play a positive role for health. In 1989 probiotics were defined as,
live microbial feed supplement which beneficially affects the host animal by improving its intestinal microbial balance
Gut probiotics are often present in dairy products and breast milk and scientific research has been extensive and carried out over decades. This molecular science has examined the role of thousands of microorganisms and bacteria and their role in human health. Although much of this has been around the function of the human gut and digestive system, research has identified other areas of the body, which may benefit from probiotic treatment.
We all take antibiotics from time to time. Their role is to kill off harmful bacteria and they are exceedingly efficient at doing this. However, this does not mean that antibiotics are probiotics just because they work in our favour.
Antibiotics kill off both the harmful and the helpful bacteria strains and many people find that they will experience side effects following a course of antibiotics.
Yeast infections such as thrush for example are common side effects that many people will experience following a course of antibiotics. This is because the beneficial bacteria will be reduced and the delicate balance of the environment interfered with. Many people also experience digestive problems such as diarrhoea following antibiotics for the same reason.
The NHS are investigating whether prescribing certain probiotics alongside antibiotics may decrease this problem of side effects.
Probiotic supplements come in a range of forms from yoghurt type drinks to freeze dried supplements and are touted for health and weight loss. There really is no scientific evidence and although there seems to be a strong case that probiotics will have an effect upon health and work in the ways that are advertised, you cannot be sure because this is a very complex science.
In some cases, we eat probiotics as part of our natural diet because they are present in many cheese or dairy products and breast milk is vital source passed onto to infants by feeding and not always present in formula milk.
There is absolutely no evidence that probiotics will do anything to help with weight loss, however from time to time a new strain is identified and tested and looks promising.
There are plenty of supplement sellers who are promoting probiotics and occasionally a new strain of probiotic is identified and heralded as the next big thing.
The scientific world is not unanimous is its approval of probiotics when taken as supplements. Neither The FDA or the European Food Safety Agency have approved any probiotic supplementation and most of the health claims made by people selling probiotic supplements are simply unproven.
There may be a danger of introducing live bacteria (good or bad) to people with weakened immune systems or the elderly or children and you are advised to seek medical advice before taking probiotic treatments.
Probiotics can interact with medicine so it is important to seek medical advice if you are taking a course of prescription drugs, undergoing chemotherapy or taking steroids. Probiotic supplements may introduce infection.
Recently Lactobacillus Gasseri, a milk derived probiotic, was tested in Japan in association with the Milk Science Research Institute.
It has been heralded by the supplement industry as providing a new and easy way to lose weight and the fact that findings were published by the British Journal of Nutrition has given it added credibility.
Test results suggested that regular consumption of this yoghurt-based substance could reduce adipose tissue.
This may be true but this was only a preliminary survey carried out on 210 healthy people and requires further testing.
Call us sceptical but the fact that the testing was associated with the Milk Science Research Institute and the findings seem to suggest that you should drink a regular milk based product to keep your weight down seems a bit too convenient to us.
Of course, the supplement industry is promoting probiotics for weight loss. It is yet another product ingredient that can be advertised and sold. The supplement industry is worth billions and new products are after all their bread and butter.
A trial, which involves just 210 people, may be a good start and Lactobacillus Gasseri may prove to be effective in the future but proof remains inconclusive.
The NHS and the FDA do not approve probiotic supplementation, even those strains which have received substantially more detailed investigation than this.
According to Jeremy Burton, PhD, deputy director of the Canadian Research and Development Centre for Probiotics, speaking in an interview with ABC News.
There’s nothing wrong with companies investing in studies, but it’s better when the study is backed up by independent research
Although there are potentially thousands of probiotics, only a few have been identified and research is still ongoing. There are obviously real potential health benefits associated with using probiotics medicinally but this complicated science requires further evidence and testing. Even the most researched strains have not yet been sufficiently developed in basic and clinical research to warrant approval for health claim status. Probiotics for weight loss remain largely untrialled and untested.
Here are some of the probiotics, which have been tested and are most likely to show up in a supplement.
There are thousands of different strains of probiotics and some will have an effect upon health and well being.
This is a complicated science that examines these tiny cells that make up the human body in great detail and although using bacteria to fight bacteria may one day be an established medical procedure, that day does not appear to be happening anytime soon.
Probiotic supplements remain in the hands of independent marketers and even if some of the products are a commonplace feature of the supermarket shelves and look healthy, they really have no medical backing.
Many people experience side effects from probiotics including flatulence gas and other digestive problems. Not life threatening if you are fit and healthy but potentially dangerous if you are not.
The science of probiotics is interesting and may become a treatment of the future, but until this is proven and accepted by the medical profession, taking probiotic supplementation is totally at your own risk.
There is no real evidence that probiotics will do anything to help you lose weight. Maybe one day there will be proof that a strain of probiotic such as Lactobacillus Gasseri will provide a solution to obesity but until then losing weight with probiotics is just another fad and comes with no evidence.