The Probiotic Revolution and Gut Health

It can be easy not to see the wood for the trees, particularly when looking at the human body. We focus too heavily on one organ, one cellular structure or a single biochemical reaction, when there is often a multitude of factors and a complex interplay of systems. To name but a few, the complexity of mind over body, hormonal molecular reactions, or the interaction between the body's cells and the organisms living within or on the body itself.

This leads us to probiotics, the healthy or 'good' bacteria which can help to balance our body's natural gut bacteria. It is incredible that we have more bacteria in our gut then we have cells in our body, which should raise questions on the importance and impact of these bacteria. There has been a swell of research over the past decade, providing some very interesting ideas. The theory is that the 'healthy' probiotic bacteria kill or restrict the growth of harmful bacteria, and also interact with the gut’s metabolism of food and associated chemical interactions.

Researchers have gone as far as transplanting foetal faecal matter into a foreign gut to change the way the body absorbs and metabolises ingested food. There are only preliminary results available, but there are many ways the medical community has started to harness the benefits of probiotics. In the hospital setting, high dose probiotics are given to reduce the risks of infective diarrhoea after heavy antibiotic use in the elderly and children, and to good effect. Some studies (despite their limitations) have shown regular probiotics to improve immunity by reducing upper respiratory tract infections.

Other research has suggested that probiotics may play a role in reducing a child's risk of developing asthma, eczema and hay fever, although the evidence is relatively weak. NICE (National Institute of Clinical Excellence) has gone as far as recommending a 4 week course of probiotics for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). I have personally had great success with trying this in combination with FODMAP diets for my patients with IBS, an all-too common condition. It is however, important to use a significant amount of the probiotic (ideally, at least 1 billion bacteria per day) and recognised brands with backed research or pharmaceutical-grade products. Probiotics are generally safe and therefore considered a food rather than a medicine in terms of the government’s agencies. For this reason, they may not be as highly regulated, so it does mean you will need to do your research to find the right formula.

The influence of gut health on the body has developed a lot of traction over recent years and I am certain we will be hearing more. There is a great deal of interesting research coming from London’s King’s College, where they have an international reputation for their impact on advances in nutritional health. I am sure there will be more evidence in due course.. watch this space.