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Probiotic or Conbiotic?

Posted on: 28 Sep 04

Summary

Until a few years ago very few people would have given credence to the idea that an ongoing war is being waged in the battleground of the digestive system between good and bad bacteria, but with a marketing onslaught akin to the Star Wars world it parallels the makers of probiotics have now introduced the concept to Britain.
Until a few years ago very few people would have given credence to the idea that an ongoing war is being waged in the battleground of the digestive system between good and bad bacteria, but with a marketing onslaught akin to the Star Wars world it parallels the makers of probiotics have now introduced the concept to Britain. But are they actually any good for you, or just another attempt to sell us a quick fix that can assuage the guilt of our ‘busy lives’? “Ten years ago, probiotics were considered to be snake oil by the medical profession. Now there is strong evidence some probiotics are beneficial,” says Professor Jeremy Hamilton-Miller of the Royal Free and University College medical school. In other parts of the world probiotics have a strong history, the Japanese have been drinking Yakult for nearly seventy years, and in Scandinavia probiotics can be prescribed. Studies in Canada and Finland have suggested that the products can have beneficial effects on everything from chronic constipation to infant health, but what do they actually do down there?

The gut contains about a kilo of what is described as ‘gut flora’, a mass of bacteria used to break down food. The case for probiotics states that the ubiquitous problems associated with contemporary life; stress, a diet of processed foods, excessive consumption of alcohol, all damage this ‘gut flora’. Probiotics restore the balance, helping the body to digest food properly. Most probiotics are based on lactic acid bacteria, similar to that contained in yoghurt, but whereas the acid in the stomach kills the lactic acid bacteria in yoghurts, probiotics can thrive. As the scepticism of the medical profession is dissipating a number of useful applications for probiotics are emerging:

 - correcting the imbalance caused by a course of antibiotics; Antibiotics destroy ‘gut flora’ both good and bad, so for people on repeated courses of antibiotics, probiotics can be reinvigorating.
 
- preventing food poisoning; A number of studies have suggested that probiotics can help prevent food poisoning by stopping the bad bacteria from taking hold. Indeed researchers at Reading University say their studies have suggested that taking a course of probiotics for a few days before and then during a trip abroad can reduce the likelihood of stomach upsets by up to 30%.

 - preventing chronic constipation; as mentioned above a Canadian study of 70 people revealed that a staggering 89% said taking probiotics for a month had a positive effect on their conditions. Small scale trials of probiotics in Irritable Bowel Syndrome sufferers have also produced positive results and larger trials are now taking place.

Inevitably the heavy marketing and increasingly evident health benefits have led to a raft of products coming to market from Yakult to the likes of Muller Vitality, Danone Actimel and ProViva and as ever the discerning consumer has to be aware of the fact that what they’re being promised isn’t always what they’ll get. In a recent test over half the products surveyed contained less of the promised bacteria than stated, although we should point out that all the products mentioned in this article came through the tests convincingly.

Probiotics are defined by the World Health Organization as “live micro-organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host,” a woolly description at best but one that reflects the fact that, where Probiotics are concerned, the marketing has outstripped the science, nevertheless the positive evidence is mounting to support the use of Probiotics to help balance the common failings of the western diet and even if your chosen pot lacks the goodness of the big names, the one thing the medical boffins are united on is that at least it can’t do you any harm.

Mark Stacey

Last updated on: 27/08/2010 11:40:18

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