A dose of friendly bacteria

 

BY: EVELIN GAN 

If  you are a regular supermarket-goer, you would have probably noticed a mindboggling number of probiotic beverages, dairy products and even baby formula lining the aisles.

Food products containing “live cultures” or “friendly bacteria” have been around for years. Good sources of probiotics include yoghurt, soy beverages, fermented and unfermented milk and miso. In recent years, however, food manufacturers have become more adventurous with their offerings.

Not the sort to slurp up yoghurt? Well, you could still get your daily dose of probiotics in the form of powder, capsule or a snack bar.

For the uninitiated, probiotics are “beneficial microbes” that exist naturally as part of the intestinal microbiota, said Dr Reuben Wong, consultant and assistant professor at the Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at National University Hospital.

“We tend to think of bacteria as dangerous and disease-causing, but ‘good’ bacteria are actually essential components of the ecosystem in our gut,” explained Dr Wong.

A healthy gut to stimulate immunity

Professor Hania Szajewska from the Department of Paediatrics at The Medical University of Warsaw told TODAY that “disturbances in gut microbiota during early life may have consequences extending into adulthood”.

Gut microbiota plays an important role in developing immunity. Certain diseases such as asthma, allergy, obesity, Type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease have been linked to abnormal intestinal colonisation, said Prof Szajewska, who was in town in July to share clinical evidence on the use of probiotics during pregnancy and lactation.

Prof Szajewska said the use of probiotics during pregnancy and breastfeeding may be a “promising strategy” in reducing the child’s risk of developing certain diseases later in life.

Relieve certain tummy woes

According to Dr Wong, there is good evidence for the use of probiotics in relieving gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome – it has been found to improve consistency of runny stools and reduce tummy pain.

In children, probiotics are also used to treat gastroenteritis, added Dr Wong. It also helps to reduce the duration and severity of diarrhoea.

According to Mr Kua Chong Han, a patient care pharmacist at Guardian Health and Beauty, who is also in the Ministry of Health’s Food Drug Administration Instructions Committee, those who experience tummy discomfort and diarrhoea from taking antibiotics may also benefit from probiotics.

Explaining how, Mr Kua said: “Antibiotics kill the foreign bad bacteria in our body. However, inevitably, they may also end up killing the good bacteria in the large intestine that keeps our bowel healthy. This leads to diarrhoea and stomach discomfort after a course of antibiotics.”

Mr Kua added that taking probiotic strains consisting of “good bacteria” similar to those found in the intestine, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, may help restore the balance disrupted by antibiotics. He advised taking probiotics at least an hour before consuming antibiotics.

Safe for everyone?

According to the experts, probiotics are generally safe and have little side effects for most people.

However, Prof Szajewska said caution should be taken for the critically ill, those with a compromised immunity, such as those on chemotherapy, and pre-term infants.

She added that not all strains of probiotics are equal. It is important for consumers to choose a probiotic product from a recognised manufacturer. The safety and effectiveness of the product should be supported by clinical trials, said Prof Szajewska.

Dr Wong also stressed that probiotics are “not a panacea for all ailments”.

“There are lots of claims on how probiotics can do everything from strengthening immune system to reducing allergies but you will need to study the evidence carefully before drawing any conclusions,” he said.

Dr Wong offered this advice: Check out the evidence to find out which specific strains and formulations have undergone clinical trials. Then, if the product helps with your symptoms, stick with it.