Saturday 19 August 2017

Dear Dr Nina: How do I improve my family's gut bacteria?

Photo posed
Photo posed

Nina Byrnes

I've been reading a lot about the importance of 'healthy gut bacteria' and wanted to start increasing products containing 'healthy bacteria' into my family's diet. I'm confused as to what to do. I've seen lots of different probiotic yoghurts but have heard that not all of them are worth taking. The same is true of the over-the-counter preparations and tablets available from chemists. They're expensive, so I don't want to pay for something that's ultimately useless. What will they ultimately do for my health?

Probiotics, commonly referred to as 'good bacteria', are live microorganisms (either the same or similar to those found in the body) that scientific research has found to be beneficial to health.

Probiotics are not new. In fact, Abraham's long life in the Old Testament was attributed to the fact that he ate fermented milk and these products may have been used to aid digestive health in Roman times. A Russian microbiologist first formally documented their benefits in 1907.

Probiotics are the live active cultures found in yoghurts and cheese and we have been consuming them for years. The recent change is that they are now available in drinks, capsules and even health bars.

Fermented or cultured dairy products are a major source of probiotics. Other sources include soy beverages, buttermilk, fermented milk, miso and tempeh.

The most common strains of probiotics are Lactobacillus acidophilus, bulgaricus, casei, gasseri or plantarum; Bifidobacterium bifidum, lactis, or longum; Enterococcus faecium; and Saccharomyces boulardii.

If a yogurt is to be probiotic, it must contain one of these. Danone have created their own culture used in Activia yoghurt.

Probiotics are most commonly used to promote digestive health. Taking these may help regulate bowel motions and help reduce bloating and wind associated with irritable bowel syndrome.

Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease are two conditions, which cause some similar symptoms to IBS, but there is also underlying inflammation of the intestines, which may come and go.

Studies have suggested that gut bacteria may play a role in these conditions and that probiotics may help reduce inflammation and delay flares.

Probiotics have been shown in studies to help shorten cases of infectious diarrhoea, especially in babies and small children. Taking probiotics when you are taking an antibiotic may also help reduce the chance of antibiotic-related diarrhoea with two studies suggesting they reduce the risk by 60pc. The Pill, childbirth, menstruation and menopause all cause hormonal change which may alter normal urogenital bacteria. Taking probiotics may help in this instance.

The benefit of probiotics in recurrent urinary tract infections is still under investigation. Other potential benefits under investigation include the possible benefit in skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, allergies and oral health.

Probiotics are considered generally safe, but may not be suitable for those with reduced immune systems or in the elderly and they may interact with some medication.

Their production is unregulated, so strength and purity of brands may differ. They are not routinely recommended in healthy asymptomatic individuals, as their benefits are still a topic of research.

Q. My baby is due in three months time and I'm considering getting placenta pills made after the birth. Do doctors recommend these? Are they safe and do they have any recognised medical benefit?

Placental pills have increased in popularity in recent years, most notably since Kim Kardashian announced she would be taking them. Those who advocate them claim there are health benefits as the placenta is rich in iron and vitamins. Benefits, such as improved energy, better hair and nails, improved mood and quicker recovery from pregnancy, have been cited. Consuming the placenta is not unusual in many mammal species.

The truth is, there is absolutely no medical evidence to support any of these claims. There have been no proper clinical studies done on placental pills. More recently, the safety of these pills has been called into question. In recent weeks, a baby suffered a potentially fatal bacterial infection that was felt to be due to the mothers intake of placental pills.

The baby had Group B Streptococcal septicaemia. The mother was tested and was clear, but when her placental pills were checked, they were all found to be positive for Strep B.

Thankfully, the baby was diagnosed and treated by neonatologists, but it is a chilling reminder of how important the regulation of medicinal products is.

The production of placental pills is not regulated or standardised, therefore, the checks and balances that apply in the pharmaceutical industry do not apply. It appears, on reviewing sites that produce these pills, that they follow "food hygiene" regulations. Production seems to occur in facilities that would not pass most lab health-and-safety checks.

The weeks after childbirth can be stressful. Your body is recovering from an arduous physical trauma, you are sleep deprived and physically and mentally exhausted. This is not abnormal and nearly every new mother feels this way. It is absolutely of benefit to ensure you are eating well, drink plenty fluids (up to three litres daily, if breastfeeding), and get as much rest as you can. Lean on anyone around you who can help out and don't worry too much about the housework.

Remember, most of the celebrities who " bounce back" after having a baby have done that with far more help than just a few placental pills.

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