Zeroing in on the Science of Probiotics
Hundred of products line store shelves proclaiming the benefits of probiotics tucked inside the foodstuff being sold. From aiding digestion to lowering cholesterol, it’s hard not to wonder if all the claims can actually hold true.
While the appeal for using probiotics may be strong, several questions arise–what are probiotics and do they even work? Are probiotics merely a fad or do they have the backing of science?
The Science of Sour Milk
You might say our current fascination with probiotics can be credited to milk, or rather, spoiled milk.
In the late 1800s, Louis Pasteur feverishly worked to perfect a process designed to kill microorganisms that form and sour milk. That process, familiar to us now as pasteurization, confirmed a budding theory of germs and contributed toward efforts combating the spread of disease such as tuberculosis and scarlet fever.
While Pasteur was taking his place in history as the “father of germ theory” by slaying microorganisms found inside fermented milk, the Russian scientist Elie Metchnikoff was earning a reputation as the “father of probiotics” by drinking them.
For some strange reason, certain Bulgarian peasants lived longer and remained healthier than friends who worked and lived aside them each day. Metchnikoff made the connection between a type of bacteria that grows in sour milk and the robust nature of peasants who didn’t mind bitter cups of the stuff each day.
This led to his realization that it was possible to “replace harmful microbes by useful ones” in a person’s body, a belief Metchnik off further embraced by imbibing fermented milk every day until his death in 1916.
Right to be Suspicious?
Despite probiotics having a start in the scientific mind of Metchnikoff, suspicions we might have about modern day probiotic products aren’t unfounded. At least, not entirely.
Scientific studies do indicate benefits resulting from several strains of probiotic bacteria, some of which are now sold in yogurts or capsules at the local supermarket.
In fact, benefits derived through certain probiotic strains are sometimes due to unintentional removal of healthy bacteria that otherwise appear in our food. This removal of natural and desirable probiotics results from attempts by food producers at providing longer shelf-lives and the destruction harmful bacteria in their own products. They mean well, so far as it goes.
Yet, many goods and supplements containing probiotics make claims not yet backed by science.
“15 to 20 have clinical studies behind them,” Gregor Reid, professor of microbiology at the University of Western Ontario, explained during a 2009 interview with the Wall Street Journal.
It gets worse. Not only is finding the right bacteria important, a task requiring some research on its own, so is finding a product with a sufficient quantity of the probiotic in question.
“[Many products] either have the wrong bacteria or the wrong numbers,” Professor Glenn Gibson, food microbiologist at the University of Reading, told the UK Times.
With such a narrow selection of science-backed probiotics on store shelves, how can we know which products to choose?
Go With Your Gut
The majority of studies on probiotics have so far centered on intestinal bacteria, with fewer and smaller studies appearing related to liver health, inflammation, and the immune system.
Several of these studies show that probiotics offer a very real payback for sufferers of Irritated Bowl Syndrome (IBS) and for patients, particularly among the elderly, who are prescribed broad spectrum antibiotics–antibiotics which sometimes don’t discriminate between healthy bacteria in our bowls and harmful bacteria in the rest of our body.
Among products offering probiotic additions, many of the better known foods and supplements do indeed carry necessary strains, and in the right quantity, to target desired relief to our bellies.
Overall, odds for finding a qualified probiotic are so far highest if they aim for your gut. In particular, products providing Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains are those with the most backing in science.
Part of the trick relies on us, however, as heating a probiotic foodstuff or skipping daily doses can reduce and even eliminate any benefit sought. Care in proper storage of a probiotic product is also required to ensure its ongoing effectiveness.
Other probiotic options backed by study include solutions for halitosis (bad breath) and vaginal health. Locating the right products with these benefits in mind may take additional effort and investigation on your part, however. Speaking with a doctor can help the decision and information gathering process, and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Future of Probiotics
Despite Metchnikoff’s brilliant insights more than a century ago, our grasp of microbiology and probiotics is in many respects a recent undertaking. There is a sense of urgency here, however, as the medical and commercial profits involved are causing a push for new and more complete studies on probiotic benefits.
Several well-backed studies related to probiotic effects on the immune system and allergies, particularly among newborns and pregnant women, are among the more promising near-term prospects. Technological advances in DNA analysis and metagenomics also practically assure new leaps in knowledge and research of probiotics over the coming decade.
As Science closes in on a better understanding of the communities of bacteria inside our bodies, harmful and beneficial alike, we’re sure to see this extend to the doctor’s office and the supermarket shelf in rapid succession.