Cultures For Life

School of Nursing

Ever wondered if probiotics improve immune function? Benefit gastrointestinal conditions? Or even help in the treatment of infections? Well, since antiquity, we’ve allied with microorganisms for the betterment of out health.

In the quest for senility, the Russian Nobel laureate, Elie Metchnikoff (1845-1916) theorized that bacteria in fermented dairy products might actually be beneficial for our gut health. While he was best known for his work in immunity and the discovery of the phagocytic process, he first declared that some “toxicants” in our large intestine contribute to illness and ageing.

In the decades following, many scientists and medical practitioners were still inquisitive about the role microbes’ play in relation to our health. As a result, research picked back up in the early to mid 90s with theories on how probiotics can protect against enteric infections or even activate specific immune responses.

Simply put, probiotic translates into “for life.” Many beneficial microbes we consume from cultured foods are single-celled prokaryotic organisms. While a variety of groups exist, the most common are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.

Within these genera many other species exist—and separately included are some yeast. At times, we may consume them and not even know it. Take yogurt for example, the product of fermenting milk with bacteria known as lactofermentation. Organisms within the Lactobacillus species such as L. acidophilus or L. bulgaricus convert sugar into lactic acid, giving yogurt it’s tart yet delicious taste.

The microbes left behind are thought to be beneficial and may help with breaking down food to extract nutrients or even support immune health. They play a critical role in the development of a functioning immune system and its thought that some antibody production takes place in the gut.

When it comes to the broad question of improving gut health with probiotics—evidence does support their use for therapeutic means. Take clostridium difficile-associated diarrhea (CDAD) for example and the role probiotics play in the prevention of infection.

A complete case analysis of 31 trials investigating CDAD proposed that probiotics may reduce the risk of infection by up to 60%. The analysis concluded that short-term use appears to be safe and effective in those who are not immunocompromised or severely debilitated.

The most effective agents for prevention of CDAD include L. acidophilus and L. Casei and the dose recommended is > 10 billion colony-forming units per day, which suggest efficacy verse lower doses.

In another analyses of 14 trials that involved adults, children, and elders, reviewed if probiotics were better than placebo to prevent upper respiratory infection. Decreased incidence and reduced antibiotic prescription rates were all attributed to probiotic administration. This indicates probiotics may be in favor over placebo for prevention.

There are many more examples linking the benefits to include increased quality of life for those who suffer from allergic rhinitis, improved brain function, and even having protective factors against atherosclerosis.

However, it’s important to note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t approved them for use in prevention or treatment of disease. While these are very brief examples, it gives us some insight to the vast body of literature that currently exists on the topic.

The trajectories were on for future research is quite interesting as well — such as the promising fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) for a range of gastrointestinal problems.

The symbiotic relationship we hold with our fellow organisms is no doubt unique, and as time goes on, our understanding and expertise will only expand to contribute towards the betterment of our health.