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Are Probiotics a Myth or Miracle?

December 1, 2014 in Blogs

By Nic Fleming, The Guardian

The market for pills and yoghurts containing ‘friendly’ bacteria is worth $28bn.

The chances are, you think you are an individual. Within a few social, economic and legal constraints, you probably see yourself as pretty autonomous. The reality, however, is that you are more of an ecosystem than an individual. There are 10 times more microbial cells in your body than human ones.

In recent years, scientists have developed a greater understanding of the important roles played by the 100tn or so bugs the average person carries. After decades of focusing on how to kill bacteria with soap and antibiotics, we are coming round to a more nuanced appreciation of the symbiotic relationship we have with them. While some can make us sick, others help to break down the nutrients in our food, teach our immune systems to recognise enemies, fight off food poisoning and even produce chemicals that determine our moods.

As our knowledge of the importance of the microbes in our bodies grows, the big question is whether it is possible to give our gut flora a helping hand. In fact, it is the $28.8bn question – the projected global value of the probiotics market for next year. The ads are certainly seductive. All that harm from takeaways, boozy nights and work stress can be put right with a daily dose of live bacteria. But do probiotics have real health benefits?

Studies have documented that people with a wide range of diseases including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease have different gut flora from those of healthy people, but it can be hard to tell whether this is a cause or a consequence of the illness. Microorganisms play important roles in regulating immune system responses, and can therefore affect the chances of people developing auto-immune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome and allergies. Numerous studies, including one published last year by Swedish scientists, show that babies born by caesarean have lower levels of good bacteria and chemical imbalances in the immune system that make them more susceptible to allergies and eczema.

Research also suggests that healthy gut …read more


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