So just how friendly are ‘friendly bacteria’?
Our digestive system contains bacteria which are partly responsible for the digestion process and we wouldn’t survive without them but does taking supplements of these particular bacteria provide any health benefits? The jury is still out amongst scientists.
The number of bacteria in our bodies is staggering, outnumbering our actual human cells at a ratio of 10:1 (microorganisms : human cells). In fact there are over 100 trillion bacteria living within our intestines. If we were to isolate them we would discover they weigh just over 3 pounds (around 1.5kg). So a lot of scientists believe that the small amount ingested through such things as probiotic drinks or ‘live’ yoghurts is literally just like a drop of water in the ocean, therefore having little or no effect on the overall balance of the gut.
Others are sceptical about how these bacteria could survive the harsh acidic conditions of the stomach. At a pH of between 1.8 – 3 the job of stomach acid is to kill bacteria found naturally on foods. So would any actually survive to go into the intestines where they are thought to do their job?
More seriously it is thought that in people with a supressed immune system the bacteria can do more harm than good, even allegedly causing a number of deaths. In most hospitals medical professionals avoid the use of any of these products or supplements as many patients could possibly have compromised immune systems already.
So where does this leave the 2 million Britons that eat/drink/take these supplements every day? Obviously some of these products have been around for centuries and many believe in their health benefits. There is some evidence that probiotics can help many conditions but scientists can’t always explain how. Some benefits are thought to be:-
- in the treatment of diarrhoea
- reducing the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel syndrome, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- decreasing lactose intolerance
- decreasing the risk of particular cancers, particularly colon cancer
- reducing the symptoms of some allergies
- lowering cholesterol levels
- reducing blood pressure
- reducing the risk of some intestinal infections
- treating oral health problems such as gingivitis and periodontitis and preventing tooth decay and preventing colds
- preventing atopic eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis
- treating and preventing hepatic encephalopathy
- curing vaginal infections and also candidiasis and urinary tract infections
- treating constipation
- treating rheumatoid arthritis
So if you are fit and healthy and you believe that probiotics do help you then stay friends with them, otherwise you may just be wasting your money and you may wish to unfriend them!