Gutted? Microbes look after your belly from the inside!

There are more microbes in your gut than there are people on the entire planet! While the large intestine was historically overlooked in terms of medical significance it is now recognised that it contains 100,000 billion indigenous microbes – exceeding the number of cells in the body by a factor of ten, while the number of people on Earth is ‘only’ six billion or so.

Spotlight on Prebiotics and Probiotics: Friendly Bacteria and Hard Evidence on 22nd June was a seminar giving an insight into the human gut. Speakers were Glenn Gibson, Professor of Food Microbiology at the University of Reading and head of Food Microbial Sciences Research Unit and Tom McDonald, Professor Immunology at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry.

In the last 10 years probiotics has become a household name, due in part to advertising campaigns, particularly by companies like Danone, who make Actimel probiotic yoghurt drink and Activia probiotic yoghurt and who kindly sponsored this seminar.

Professor McDonald emphasised the fact that the gastro-intestinal tract accounts for 70% of the health of our immune system, so it is vital that it remains in good shape if we are to retain good health and wellbeing.

Most of us are aware that probiotics encourage healthy bacteria in the gut by taking a hold on the lining and not allowing the unhealthy bacteria such as E-coli and C-difficile to take over. Antibiotics are so good at wiping out unhealthy bacteria, but unfortunately they also destroy friendly bacteria, so taking probiotics to negate the effects of antibiotics can be very successful. Conversely antibiotics do not destroy C-diff which presents our health service with so many hospital-acquired infections.

Tom McDonald explained, ‘It is my job to look at evidence, and there is strongest evidence for probiotics with diarrhoeal disease in children.’ Two studies showed that children who took Actimel had shorter duration of the disease. In one study of 928 children of six to 24 months one group took Actimel for 12 weeks and others took a standard yoghurt. There was a 28 per cent lower incidence of diarrhoea in the Actimel group. A similar study found that the duration of diarrhoea was reduced by 46 per cent.

He claimed that there is also good evidence to show that probiotics, especially Lactobacilli and Saccharomyces boulardii can prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhoea. One study incorporated 135 patients of over 50, 50 of whom were in hospital. They were given daily Actimel (100g twice a day) at the same time as they took a course of antibiotics and for one week after it had finished.

Researchers found that incidences of both antibiotic-associated diarrhoea and C. diff were reduced in the Actimel group.
What was highly significant was the cost of providing Actimel per patient was £60 each, compared with an average cost of £4,000 for treating one patient.

Work with vaccines has also shown that probiotics increased the antibody response in people who had immunisation against rotavirus, polio, diphtheria and tetanus. They even helped increase antibodies to the common cold shortening the duration by a couple of days.

Professor McDonald is convinced that probiotics reduce the incidence and duration of gut infections but cannot be sure yet what effect they have on healthy people. He pointed out, though, that they are not drugs and there is no harm associated with taking them.
Prebiotics encourage probiotics to flourish.

Prebiotics, on the other hand, provide the right environment in the large intestines to encourage healthy microflora to flourish there. Prebiotics are biochemical compounds, a class of compound sugars which are found naturally in food, particularly certain fruits, vegetables and cereals – garlic, chicory, artichokes and bananas, for example. They provide sustenance for probiotics.

Professor Gibson gave details of a number of studies using GOS (galacto-oligosaccharides). One particularly interesting trial included 60 over 60 year olds who were given GOS or a placebo to assess the effects on the colonic microflora. After five weeks those taking the GOS had a significant increase in bifidobacterial numbers and after 10 weeks the ratio was equivalent to that of healthy adults.

Both speakers made it clear that in the world of gastro-enterology probiotics and prebiotics are often prescribed and considered to be an effective solution. They answered a variety of questions from interested Guild members who can be a tough audience as many have a good degree of knowledge already.

The evening was especially enhanced by the fact that it was warm and sunny and that all 40 or so of the attendees could enjoy drinks and a fabulous hot meal out on the terrace at the Royal Society of Medicine’s Chandos House near Harley Street. Many thanks to both speakers and to Danone for an excellent seminar.

To keep up with the world of probiotics, register at Danone’s Probiotics News website at
This seminar was arranged by the Guild of Health Writers and this report first appeared in its site at

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