Saying Yes to Yoghurts

There is a plethora of probiotic yoghurt products now on the market But are live yoghurts really the great medical elixir of natural health?

Evidence is mounting that depletion of good bugs in our intestines is linked to disease. In our gut, there is a natural symbiotic or cooperative relationship between certain bacteria and our good health. These are the good bacteria or bugs.

The balance between good and bad gut bacteria, also called the microflora, is now being recognised as crucial to our health by the medical community.

Drinking probiotic yoghurt drinks used to be only promoted by the natural health community. Now, however, that it is recognised that our intestinal microflora fight off pathogenic gut bacteria and improve our overall health they have been accepted as being of benefit.

Replenishment of the microflora using probiotics has been found in the scientific literature to be of benefit. So we are moving from probiotics being an alternative medicine to the mainstream.

Recent research has shown that our own gut microflora is likely to play a role in our susceptibility to disease. There is lots of evidence that our microflora may protect us from infection and probiotics may help prevent gastrointestinal infections or reduce their severity.

Probiotics may be useful, if given with antibiotics, and improve the ability to fight an infection. But little research has been done on how much probiotic is best, and what mixtures of bacteria in yoghurts are of most benefit in which infections.

But if you prescribe them for a disease then should they then be considered a medicine or a food.

The gut is a very complex place with transient bacteria, which could include probiotic bacteria and pathogenic bacteria. There is considerable turnover of good and bad bacteria.

There are currently three potential ways a probiotic may help prevent and fight infection:

  • Good bugs may act directly on the pathogenic bugs in the gut and thereby prevent infections.
  • The probiotic bugs may signal to our immune system that infection is present or coming and improve the response we mount against that infection.
  • The presence of probiotic bug may establish a niche in the gut. This may block the growth competitively of nasty bugs and prevents infection.

Some probiotic bacteria have been shown to produce bacteria killing agents. By harnessing the potential of these agents it may be possible to produce new drugs or it may enable the selection of the best bugs to put in yoghurts and at what dose. So patients can be treated with specific tailor made yoghurts to tackle their particular illness.

Future research will help decide which natural gut bugs are protective against which infections and perhaps develop targeted medications. They may prevent further infection in those who are on antibiotics and help protect those in whom there immune system is weakened.

Drugs derived from them will be more natural and thus more acceptable to consumers.

In particular, in the future, there is tremendous scope for delivery of these agents. For example, in the Third World, where there is massive morbid and mortality due to diseases that cause diarrhoea, they may have considerable health benefit.

Conor Caffrey is a writer on Science and Medicine.



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