- Why the newspapers and scientists are gunning for the new-fangled medicinal yoghurts
- Probiotics – saviour or scam?
- Could this be the medicine of the future?
When I was a kid, yoghurt came in plastic pots with flavours like Peach Melba.
It was something cheap and easy for pudding after dinner.
Then there was the ‘90s yoghurt explosion.
(Not literally – though explosion in a yoghurt factory would be both funny AND tragic.)
People started DRINKING the stuff and FREEZING it and it cost a fortune at festivals and in coffee chops.
Then along came the probiotic yoghurts.
Suddenly, yoghurt was medicine.
Now it came in plastic pots smaller than the ones we used to eat for tea, but they were drinks and much more expensive (per millilitre) than ANY yoghurt that has ever existed.
Because they were full of something called “friendly” bacteria.
In very simple terms, the idea is this…
A story of good versus evil in your stomach
In your gut are armies of bacteria, microscopic organisms, most of which dwell in our stomachs very happily.
In fact, they can do you a lot of good. They help with digestion and aid the absorption of nutrients from food. They can help fight infection and influence the health of your skin.
However, sometimes these bacteria get too populous and start to cause health problems.
The idea is that by drinking “friendly” bacteria, you can combat the bad stuff.
All good, right?
I mean, who wouldn’t want to drink down a loyal army of good, healing bacteria that tastes of cherry or banana (even if it is a bit pricey)?
Well, it seems that the backlash is well and truly under way. The newspapers, hungry for a bit of clickbait, are coming after your yoghurt.
You’ve probably read a version of the story in your daily paper but in case you missed it, here’s how the Guardian covered it on Tuesday.
“Probiotic goods a ‘waste of money’ for healthy adults, research suggests”
The article cites a study from the University of Copenhagen where researchers gave volunteers probiotic yoghurt then looked at their faecal bacteria (nice job that, picking through poo!)
They say there’s no evidence that friendly bacteria change the composition of the bacteria in that faecal matter.
In other words, it has no effect.
So that’s it then – you throw your tiny, expensive yoghurts in the bin!
Except in the article the study’s leader, Oluf Pedersen, says this:
“While there is some evidence from previous reviews that probiotic interventions may benefit those with disease-associated imbalances of the gut microbiota, there is little evidence of an effect in healthy individuals.”
Which isn’t quite as dramatic as the Guardian’s headline, is it?
He’s saying there IS actually scientific evidence that these yoghurts can help with imbalances in gut bacteria. It’s just that he’s querying whether it helps healthy people as much as the advertising says.
Oh, and then there’s this paragraph.
“The Copenhagen team noted that the real impact of the probiotics may have been masked by small sample sizes
and the use of different strains of bacteria and variations in participants’ diets, among other factors.”
What we have here is a scientific study that’s too small in sample size and also doesn’t refute earlier studies that back up the power of probiotics in some cases.
To me, this isn’t really worth an article. It feels like it’s just there to stir things up and cause a bit of debate, yet it got coverage in all the national newspapers.
If I put my really cynical hat on, I’d say that behind this article might be vested interests who like to have a go at natural and unregulated health remedies.
I don’t know… maybe drug companies, for instance?
The trouble is, most people will see that alarming headline and not read the rest of it, so the damage is done.
The question is…
Probiotics – saviour or scam?
The main problem with answering this is that even scientists are confused.
Stefano Guandalini, MD, was interviewed for Science Life in 2014. He explained that working out exactly how the different bacteria in the gut work is complicated. Every human being is unique, so what helps one person might not help another. There are so many factors, from lifestyle and stress to diet and genetics.
He thinks the key is to personalise our approach to gut bacteria. That’s where me might begin to tackle problems caused by imbalances.
“My colleagues here at the University of Chicago, and others are actively working on this,” he explained. “We aren’t there yet, but we will. I have great enthusiasm in this. I think this is the medicine of the future.”
From what I’ve read in my research, he may be right about that.
For instance, a little while I told you about a rheumatologist named Jose Scher who believes that rheumatoid arthritis is linked to gut bacteria known as microbiomes.
He has found that sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to have a bacteria known as Prevotella copri in their intestines than people without the condition.
There are also links between bacteria and other problems such as asthma and psoriasis.
If you’re interested in finding out more, you can read my article here for free – and view my tips on restoring the good bacteria to your gut without paying for fancy yoghurt.
As for probiotics, my verdict is this: while the jury is out, there is definitely evidence that they can have a good effect. The problem is that what works for one person might not work for another. So if you have taken them and feel the benefit, ignore articles like the one in the Guardian.
However, if you’re sceptical, that’s fine. I’m sure there will be plenty more studies released in the future, as this is quite a hot topic in the world of medicinal science.
I’ll keep an eye out for more stories. In the meantime, stay healthy and I’ll write again next week.
Oh – and don’t forget to check out the latest additions to our shop.
Until next time, stay healthy!