Are 'probiotics' really helpful to health?

Many are familiar with the most common detergent-advertising phrase, “Antibacterial/ Kills 99.9 per cent germs!” 

But after decades of focusing on how to kill bacteria with soap and antibiotics, people are coming round to a more nuanced appreciation of the symbiotic relationship we have with bacteria. 

It’s no wonder the food and pharmaceutical industries are cashing in big with another common advertising word; “probiotic.” The probiotic global market is currently valued at USD 57.8 billion, according to the Grandview research industry report.

Probiotic foods, drinks and supplements contain live bacteria cultures which break down sugars as they multiply and leave them with a sour, fresh flavour.      

Aside from branded supplements and medication, foods that naturally contain probiotics include plain yoghurt, mursik, cheeses, fermented cabbage, and fermented milk such as Mala. 

These foods contain “friendly bacteria”  that are said to provide the consumer with numerous health benefits by improving the intestinal and in other cases vaginal microbial balance. 

“While some bacteria can make us sick, there are numerous good ones that live in our bodies and help break down the nutrients in our food for efficient absorption, train our immune systems to identify germs, fight off harmful pathogens and even produce chemicals that determine our general wellbeing and moods,” says medical microbiologist Caroline Mbogori.

Mbogori says the “good bacteria” are found all over the body, but are most pronounced in the digestive and reproductive systems. “The vagina in particular is colonised by bacteria in the Lactobacillus species which produce lactic acid, creating an acidic environment that prevents many other microorganisms, such as yeast, from growing in the vagina,” explains Mbogori.

“Vaginal Lactobacilli can be disrupted by many things: antibiotics, douching, certain sexually transmitted infections and semen. When Lactobacilli numbers fall, other bacteria or yeast normally present but dormant in the vagina can overgrow, causing unpleasant symptoms.”

Mbogori says Lactobacilli is the general term for the species. Those that live in the gut and fermented dairy products like yoghurt and cheese are beneficial and healthy, but the lactobacillus in the vagina are adapted specifically to the vagina. 

Asked whether probiotics such as yoghurt can reintroduce Lactobacilli in the gut and vagina, Dr Stephen Mutiso, an obstetrician-gynaecologist says it is not a proven treatment option. 

A common ‘home remedy’ for yeast infections is to apply plain, unsweetened yoghurt into the vagina. The same live bacteria that make yoghurt beneficial for the gut, the thinking goes, might also be beneficial for the vagina.

“Yoghurt and probiotic supplements can only be preventive but not curative. It is best to treat an active infection with the appropriate medication; antifungal medication. The body will then use its own mechanism to balance itself,” says Mutiso.

Mbogori says the most important way a woman can keep her most intimate landscapes healthy is by having responsible sex, and generally living a healthy lifestyle.

“The bottom line is that it’s the doorway to your reproductive tract. Treat it with respect, and love it,” says Mbogori.

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. However, it is not clear whether this is a cause or a consequence of the illnesses. 

“Microorganisms play important roles in regulating the immune system responses, and can affect the chances of people developing auto-immune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome and allergies,” says Mutiso. 

Numerous studies, including one published last year by Swedish scientists, show that babies born by caesarean have reduced levels of good bacteria and chemical imbalances in their immune system that make them more susceptible to eczema and allergies.

Researchers at the California-based Rand research organisation combined the findings of 63 studies and found people who took probiotics alongside antibiotics reduced their risk of diarrhoea by half. These were significant findings given that around 30 per cent of patients given antibiotics get diarrhoea.

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