Probiotics are currently one of the most heavily promoted ranges of health product out there and claim to be able to help everything from stomach upsets to low energy – all of which they aim to do via the intestinal tract in the stomach. Danone's Activia is one of the most popular antibiotics out there, but does it actually work? Here we will look at how antibiotics operate and whether or not a yogurt can help your stomach to more efficiently digest your food and leave you with more energy.
How Probiotics Work
The concept behind probiotics is that they can help to increase the cultures of 'good bacteria' in your stomach. As most people who remember their science will know, not all bacteria is bad, and some 'good bacteria' is important to help kill off the bad bacteria (pathogens) and to digest foods. In our stomach this balance is particularly important. They can even help by producing vitamins.
There are lots of good types of bacteria – in fact there are around 400 known types that exist in our gut and do good (there are around 10 trillion species of bacteria in the body as a whole). However these probiotics can vary and particularly when we are ill, and they also tend to decline with age so things like Activia should in theory be even more useful once we reach old age.
The theory then is that by eating probiotics such as Activia, we can help our body to fight pathogens and that should then prevent these from causing diseases or upsetting the gut. At the same time this should help us to improve our immune system as it would have fewer pathogens to fight itself.
Meanwhile because probiotics help to ease digestion this should also result in fewer cases of indigestion and heart burn and prevent the bloated feeling after eating that some people get with older age. As digesting food takes up so much energy, this should also free up more energy for other activities and that's why products such as Activia promote themselves as energy enhancers. Finally in theory they could help increase production of vitamins and minerals.
Do Probiotics Work?
The first shortcoming of probiotics is that they only contain two of the 400 gut-based bacteria – lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. Unfortunately though some of the products don't contain both of these either, and at the same time those that do are sometimes unable to get them to the gut in sufficient numbers as they get killed by stomach acids and saliva. On average 99% of these bacteria are killed by your stomach acids before they get as far as the gut.
In studies, Activia has shown to be less than 'satisfactory' in terms of the amount of friendly bacteria that get to the stomach and any difference noted is likely to be minimal. Multibionta is the product that was reported to be the most efficient at providing the body with good bacteria, but even this will provide a very small number of good bacteria and any difference is likely to be marginal. At the same time it is possible to get probiotics naturally in our diet and natural probiotics include such things as milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese, sauerkraut, soybean and some breads.
Some studies have shown support for probiotics helping gut diseases and inflammatory diseases, but overall the studies have been shown to be inconclusive. Interestingly though, one study in Israel 2004 found that probiotics can help improve arthritis. And another demonstrated its role in diarrhea – suffice to say that the topic is still not put to bed.
In conclusion then, probiotics are likely to be successful more as a result of very effective marketing than any huge impact on the health – and Activia is among these products. Other probiotic products such as Multibionta may be more effective (others that were deemed 'satisfactory' in the same study included: Yakult, Actimel, Natural Flow and Biocare). Eating natural yogurt and drinking milk is likely to be just as effective as a general rule.
That said, studies are still inconclusive and some circumstantial evidence does suggest that probiotic foods can be good for us, and perhaps in ways that are not fully understood. As they are expensive it's hard to recommend using them regularly on this basis, however using natural probiotics such as yoghurt regularly is advisable, and if you have an upset stomach or inflammatory disease then it wouldn't hurt to try probiotic products on top of other medications.