Probiotics—the good bacteria that live in your gut and that are also found in yogurt and dietary supplements—have been shown in a variety of studies to improve digestion, but new research shows they can do much more.
A study published in January 2012 in the FASEB Journal found that boosting the good bacteria in your intestines can help reduce the risk of death from heart attacks. Researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin divided rats into three groups. The first group was fed a standard diet, and the second group was given the antibiotic vancomycin in its drinking water. The third group was fed a probiotic supplement that contained Lactobacillus plantarum—a bacteria that helps the body produce less leptin, which is a protein hormone that has a key role in regulating appetite and metabolism.
At the end of the study, compared to the standard-diet group, the antibiotic group had 38 percent less leptin in its blood, which resulted in a 27 percent reduction in the severity of heart attacks. Even more impressive, the probiotic group had 41 percent less leptin and a 29 percent reduction in heart attack severity.
“Our discovery is a revolutionary milestone in the prevention and treatment of heart attacks,” the study’s lead author John Baker, MD, told NutraIngredients.com. “The biochemical link between intestinal bacteria, their metabolites and injury to the heart will reduce the risk of death from a heart attack and, coupled with the use of probiotics, will ultimately be able to improve the overall cardiovascular health of the human population.”
Added Gerald Weissman, MD, editor-in-chief of the FASEB Journal: “Just as physicians use cholesterol levels, blood pressure and overall body composition as measures of heart disease risk, we may soon evaluate our body’s susceptibility to disease by looking at the microbes that inhabit the gut.”
Another January study published in the British Journal of Dermatology showed that probiotics and prebiotics (carbohydrates or fiber that help feed the good bacteria in your gut) significantly reduced the severity of eczema in children.
The Taiwanese study involved 60 children ages 2 to 14. About 75 percent had severe eczema, and 25 percent had moderate eczema. The children were divided into two groups: One group received 950 mg per day of the prebiotic fructo-oligosaccharide, while the other group took 950 mg of the prebiotic plus 4 billion colony-forming units of the probiotic Lactobacillus salivarius daily for eight weeks.
By the end of the study, fewer than 10 percent of the children had severe eczema, about 40 percent had moderate eczema, and more than 50 percent had mild eczema. However, the children who took the prebiotic-probiotic combo fared better: Moderate or severe symptoms improved in 30 percent of those in the prebiotic group and in 52 percent of those in the probiotic-prebiotic group.
“In light of our findings, the use of combinations of prebiotics, which selectively promote the growth of certain bacterial species and their activities, and probiotics, which elicit immune-modulating effects, may be an effective strategy for treating childhood eczema,” said lead study author Keh-Gong Wu, MD, of the Taipei Veterans General Hospital in Taiwan.
Dr. Murray notes that the quality of a probiotic supplement depends primarily on proper manufacturing and the “hardiness” of the strain. “Consumers must utilize products developed and manufactured by companies that have done the necessary research to insure the viability of their product.