Probiotics: The year in review
It’s that time of year to start looking back and wrapping up the news — good or bad — in our favorite research areas.
What happened in the world of Probiotics in 2017?
Perhaps our favorite development comes from the National University of Singapore (NUS). As reported in Science Daily, the NUS has developed a specialty beer that incorporates the probiotic strain Lactobacillus paracasei L26. This friendly organism helps regulate the immune system and has the ability to neutralise toxins and viruses.
We can imagine the marketing — “Tastes Great!” “Less Toxins.” Okay, you have to be a certain age to remember the iconic “Tastes Great – Less Filling” Miller Lite ads. (In all fairness to us, they did bring back the tagline as recently as 2008 )
Creating the beer wasn’t as easy as you might think. Acids in beer kill off bacteria, so the brew process needed tweaking and trial and error with different strains of bacteria robust enough to survive. As of August, the student entreprenuers did not have a commercial agreement, but we’ve heard that a Japanese beverage company was interested.
Next up: allergies.
As any sufferer knows well, seasonal allergies disturb your sleep, lower productivity at work, home, and school, cause stress and embarrassment. In summary, they make life miserable.
And current allergy medications have fun side effectslike dry mouth and drowsiness. Yay!
In March we learned of research at the University of Florida that showed promise in relieving the symptoms of hay fever. A double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel, randomized clinical trial, showed that a combination probiotic improved “rhinoconjunctivitis-specific quality of life during allergy season for healthy individuals with self-reported seasonal allergies.”
Translation: allergy sufferers felt better! Something to try out next spring.
Guts, brains, and IBS depression.
A study released in May added to the data on the microbiota-gut-brain axis, providing evidence that bacteria affect behavior.
Say the researchers, “This study shows that consumption of a specific probiotic can improve both gut symptoms and psychological issues in IBS.”
How does it work to reduce depression? Researches used fMRI to asses brain activation patterns, and measured fecal microbiota, urine metabolome profiles, serum markers of inflammation, neurotransmitters, and neurotrophin levels. The probiotic reduced responses to negative emotional stimuli in multiple brain areas, including amygdala and fronto-limbic regions. The improvements were associated with changes in brain activation patterns that indicate that this probiotic reduces limbic reactivity.
That is, the priobiotic not only improve the gut, but directly improve negative brain symptoms.
High blood pressure.
An MIT study showed how a strain of intestinal bacteria can stop a high-salt diet from inducing inflammatory response linked to hypertension.
Before we get into it, this is not a license to eat fast foods and take a probiotic antidote!
Rather, if you have been enjoying a too high-salt diet then in addition to changing it, you could add the right probiotics to further protect yourself from the effects.
So what’s going on? Well, a high-salt diet shrinks the population of a certain type of beneficial bacteria. As a result, pro-inflammatory immune cells grow in number. These immune cells have been linked with high blood pressure, although the exact mechanism of how they contribute to hypertension is not yet known. In the study, the probiotic Lactobacillus murinus lowered the immune cell populations and hypertension was reduced.
Again, the obvious conclusion here is to avoid a sustained high salt diet. But this study and others like it reinforce the important links between diet, gut microbiome, and disease.
Age and microbiota.
At least two studies looked at changes in gut microbiota and how this relates to aging.
In one study, the researches transplanted the microbiota from the guts of old mice into young mice, causing inflammatory responses in the young mice. Inflammatory response are linked to age-related conditions such as stroke, dementia and cardiovascular disease.
Why aging tends to lead to negative imbalence in “good” and “bad” bacteria is not fully known. But the study suggests such imbalance may be on the cause side rather than the effect side of some of the inflammatory conditions that lead to age-related diseases.
Another study of “ridiculously healthy” elderly subjects confirmed that they have the same gut microbiome as healthy 30-year olds. Researchers could not identify whether this is cause or effect — do healthy elderly have good microbiomes or do good microbiomes keep people healthy into old age — but it does show that microbiome could at least be a marker for predicting health into old age or even lead to treatments for age-related conditions.
Too much of a good thing?
Before you pile on the probiotics to your already healthy diet, make sure you’re not overdoing it.
A study at the University of New South Wales exploring the link between gut health and brain function had one surprising result. For the subjects (aka rats) put on a poor diet, the diet caused memory and other brain issues. And, the good news, the probiotics helped stop the losses. That’s the good news.
But — there’s always a but — rats in the “healthy-diet” group not only saw little additional benefit to added priobitocs, the supplements may have led to some memory impairment.
What this shows is how it is important not to overdo any good thing. And that it is critical, though difficult, to determine which beneficial microbes are absent before treating with probiotic supplements on top of a healthy diet. As always, much of the research our microbiomes is directed at teasing out cause and correlation: when can we prevent and heal and when can we merely predict and otherwise act. Do changes in the biome predict disease or prevent disease?
As always, you should test and measure — if you supplement and feel worse, reduce or stop. This requires good record keeping and journaling to track what foods and supplements are working. And, as always, check with your health care provider before making any changes to diet or supplementation.