Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 21, 2017
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In praise of probiotics

It is the that time of the year when patients come in with one respiratory tract infection after another and entire classrooms are emptied due to the gastrointestinal flu. Clients come to me, asking if there's a supplement they can take to decrease the symptoms and otherwise protect them from these bugs.

So far, there have been few, if any, conclusive studies that show a positive effect of taking a particular vitamin or herbal supplement. However, we have seen that taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement can reduce the number of visits to the doctor's office. Dietary studies have been done on specific groups like seniors and people with diabetes showing that they are not meeting all their nutritional needs through diet alone. Therefore, it is possible to assume that other groups are not consuming the nutrients they need on a consistent basis. Seniors often have less appetite and, like other groups, are also trying to restrict their caloric intake. Taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement offers insurance that some of the nutrients that are needed to maintain a healthy immune system are consumed on a regular basis.

Other supplements that seems to offer some protection are probiotics, bacteria that promote good health. For hundreds of years we have observed that people who consumed fermented foods like yogurt and kefir seem to be in better health. Until recently, this was considered an old wives tale. After all, how could bacteria actually promote health? In recent years, however, studies have discovered evidence that supports this theory. Most of the bacteria that survive in our gut, survive in the small intestine and in the colon. While some can be harmful, the vast majority are helpful. Most probitotic are bacteria, of either the Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium genera. There is even one yeast, Saccharomyces boulardii, that has been evaluated for its potential role as a probiotic.

Probiotic bacteria can help us in different ways. Perhaps the most beneficial is its role in supporting the immune system. Probiotics also prevent infections by competing with harmful bacteria for places to live in our digestive tract; they have been found to prevent some types of E. coli infections. Probiotics also have their own defence system that produces potent chemicals that help destroy both potentially harmful bacteria and viruses.

Many of us have to take antibiotics to cure a bacterial infection. The antibiotics are not usually very specific, so they kill both the harmful and the good bacteria living in our systems. If the good bacteria are not replaced, it is possible that a different type of bacteria will take its place. So, it's important to make sure that we replenish the good bacteria. Unfortunately, many of us do not consume a diet that is rich in fermented foods, like pickled beets, pickles, sauerkraut or kefir. Often the only fermented food that we consume is yogurt.

When you tell your patients to consume yogurt after a course of antibiotic therapy, be sure to mention that the yogurt they eat should contain active bacterial cultures, that the yogurt should not be consumed at the same time as the antibiotic, and that they should eat enough to make an impact. Some studies suggest we need to consume up to one litre of yogurt daily to replace the beneficial bacteria, which is why some people take probiotic supplements and why products like Activia yogurt have been developed. These products contain a high dose of a specific species of beneficial bacteria. When choosing a supplement, make sure that the specific type of bacteria used in the product, the number of bacteria in a capsule and its shelf life are all on the label. Unfortunately, we do not have enough studies on hand to be able to give more reliable prescribing information at this time. However, we do know that ongoing clinical trials will provide us with more information in the near future.

So is there a way to help prevent coughs, colds and gastros? Wash your hands, eat a balanced diet, take a multivitamin and make sure you eat lots of probiotic-laden yogurt.

 

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