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Two recent studies conducted in Israel have people questioning the performance of probiotic drinks and supplements. Deemed ‘quite useless’ in the papers, you could say the results didn’t exactly swing in favour of probiotics… That’s why we’re coming back with the hard and fast facts about these findings to give you the full story. After all, there's a reason they say 'don’t believe everything you read'...

Probiotics were recently put under the PR microscope by newspapers including The Guardian

Research journal, Cell recently published two studies by the same institute investigating how probiotics interact with our gut microbiome with and without antibiotics. Here’s the breakdown:

First Study

  • 29 volunteers
  • 14 of the volunteers took the probiotic
  • Measured how the microbiome composition and function differs across the gastrointestinal (GI) tract – this means your digestive system
  • Found that how and where probiotics work depends on the individual’s microbiome and genetics

Second Study

  • 46 volunteers
  • 8 of the volunteers took the probiotic and 6 had a self-faecal microbiome transplant (FMT), both after a 7-day course on antibiotics
  • Found that the microbiome of those taking probiotics took longer to return to normal than those who had the FMT. However, in the probiotic group, good bacteria ultimately increased which indicates a good gut balance.
The news took the findings of these studies to mean that one size doesn’t fit all and probiotics may need to be personalised to suit an individual, therefore implying they may be useless to the majority. Also, they said that taking probiotics after a course of antibiotics ‘may be harmful’ and can 'cause severe disturbances’ to gut health. Here’s what the science really means though…

  • Neither study investigated the performance, effects or safety of probiotics. They focused on how probiotics interact with our own guts and did not look at any benefits from taking probiotics or what probiotics can actually do
  • All isn't what it seems. These studies have also been independently reviewed by associations such as the International Scientific Association of Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP). An interesting discovery they have made is that the authors of the studies have failed to disclose that they are currently involved with a company that promotes a commercial personalised nutrition product
  • Normal doesn't mean best. In the antibiotics trial, the volunteers didn't provide initial samples before undergoing the course of antibiotics. As this didn't happen, it is difficult to say whether FMT or probiotics actually returned the gut bacteria to a 'normal state', as the researchers didn't determine what 'normal' was for the individual. Those who did take the probiotics noticed positive changes in their microbiome, such as an increase in good bacteria and a decrease in bad, therefore their gut microbiome actually showed a healthier improvement overall
  • Small sample sizes. Therefore, we can’t draw any big conclusions from these results. In fact, bigger trials with thousands of participants have shown the benefits of probiotics
  • They only tested using a little-known probiotic brand. Also, they didn't use any extensively researched strains
  • Good bacteria for health conditions. None of the papers examined whether probiotics are effective at aiding any kind of health condition such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Antibiotic associated diarrhoea (AAD) or leaky gut

Recent studies raise interesting results, however they aren't asking the right questions

So, what does it all mean?

Let us be clear - we’re fascinated by some of the results from these trials. However, in order to get the truth on probiotics, we need to ask the right questions. Is it that important how probiotics colonise in the gut, or is it more what they’re doing and are they effective once they’re there? We know that probiotics are beneficial and stimulate the immune system as they pass through our digestive systems.

The microbiome is incredibly complex, so much so some now consider it an organ in its own right. However, the strains in some probiotics have supporting clinical evidence conducted on hundreds, sometimes thousands of participants. So what can you take away from all of this information? Well, as long as you take a good bacteria supplement suited to your needs, backed by excellent research and made up of high-quality strains, you’re on the right track to great gut health.

Research and consolidation by Dr Kate Stephens, PhD | Food and nutritional sciences; Gut Microbiology (University of Reading), BSc (Hons) Medical Microbiology

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