Friendly Bacteria Can Benefit Health Throughout the Lifecycle

Scientific experts in the fields of pediatrics, aging, and nutrition discussed the potential uses for probiotics in children as well as the elderly, and for health conditions such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

Probiotics are used worldwide and in the US they are one of the most rapidly growing categories of functional food. Probiotics are living “friendly” bacteria, like those in certain active-culture dairy drinks that can provide health benefits. Probiotics, the healthy bacteria, are found among the intestinal microbiota, the living microorganisms in the intestinal tract necessary for proper digestive health. They are responsible for protective effects including:

  • healthy turnover of cells in the intestinal tract,
  • production of essential nutrients such as short-chain fatty acids and amino acids,
  • stimulation of intestinal immunity and
  • prevention of overgrowth of harmful organisms.

Probiotics can also be found in fermented food products such as yogurt and in supplements.

Evidence is showing that specific strains of probiotics can improve digestive health and enhance immune function when consumed regularly.

Dr Allan Walker MD, Professor of Nutrition and Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, led a world class panel of

Allan Walker MD Harvard

Allan Walker MD Harvard - Courtesy of vtoxford.org

speakers. He summarized the role of probiotics in pediatrics. “Infants don’t have all of their gut bacteria at birth as they acquire it up until about 2 years of age. Probiotics are ‘good’ bacteria, which can promote healthy colonization of bacteria in the gut during this time, leading to enhanced immunity,” said Dr Walker.

Dr Mary Ellen Sanders, a consultant specializing in probiotics, provided an overview of the studies showing the benefits of probiotics and health. Dr Sanders said, “compelling new studies are showing how probiotics can help keep healthy people healthy. One study showed a decreased incidence of common infectious diseases among kids in day care.” She stressed the fact that each individual strain of probiotic can act differently, so a probiotic that helps with digestion may be different from one that supports the immune system.

Dr Stefano Guandalini MD, Professor of Pediatrics and Director of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center shared the newest research on probiotics and inflammatory bowel disease. “Inflammatory Bowel Disease is a condition that affects approximately 1 million adults and 150,000 children in the US. Emerging studies are showing promise in children and will continue to help determine how we can be using probiotics practically for such serious conditions.”

Dr Simin Meydani MD, Associate Director of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University presented cutting-edge data, which helps in answering the question, could probiotics help the elderly? About 70 percent of our body’s immune system is located in the digestive tract and as we age, our immune function weakens. “The idea is that taking in certain probiotics on a regular basis might positively change the bacterial populations in the gut in older people,” she said. She also suggests that probiotics consumption may positively enhance the immune response and allow for improved resistance to infectious diseases.

Researchers are still unclear on the method of action behind probiotics’ benefits. Robert Clancy, PhD, of The University of New Castle, Australia, suggested that there will be “Immunobiotic Evolution,” stemming from the growing body of research demonstrating that probiotics have immune system benefits. In reviewing the research on the method of action, he said, “Research on probiotics is moving rapidly to identify the mechanism by which probiotics can stimulate the intestinal lining, how that function can lend benefit for protective immunity, diminish allergic hypersensitivity in the digestive trace and reduce cancer risk.”

Dr Eamonn Quigley MD, MD, of University College Cork in Cork, Ireland, shared his analysis that there may be a strong indication for use of probiotics in the treatment of many gastrointestinal diseases, given the offset balance of microbiota in individuals with conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. Quigley offered several proposed methods of action including probiotics’ anti-inflammatory properties, as well as displacing harmful bacteria and replenish the balance of healthy flora along the digestive tract.

Under normal circumstances in our gastro-intestinal systems, there are many more “friendly” bacteria than “bad” bacteria. If this balance shifts, however, the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract may be affected. Research suggests that adding probiotics to the diet can help optimize the functioning of the intestinal lining, as well as, the immune system. The role of probiotics in health may be greater than what we once thought.

Research on the Benefits of Probiotics has been presented at The American College of Nutrition (ACN) Annual Meetings.