Could probiotics help reduce our reliance on antibiotics?
Added to a range of products, including yogurts, chocolate, and potato chips, probiotics are never far from the headlines.
According to their proponents, these live strains of yeast and bacteria can help rebalance the bacterial flora naturally found in our gut, imparting a wealth of health benefits.
These potential benefits vary widely, and, it is important to note, not all are backed by scientific studies.
However, there is good evidence that probiotics can relieve acute infectious diarrhea, and there is growing evidence that they might even help reduce the symptoms of some psychiatric conditions, such as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Research into the benefits and risks of probiotics is still in its infancy — but it now seems likely that they will one day be medically useful and widely used. Because the importance of gut bacteria is now evident, the race is on to understand exactly how they can be influenced to benefit health.
Probiotics and acute infections
Interventions that are as simple as eating a yogurt are attractive to consumers and physicians alike; however, when meddling with something as complex as the microbiome, gathering and interpreting the data can be challenging.
Gut bacteria come in many forms, and they influence many systems of the body; and not everyone responds to probiotics in the same way. All of the above make drawing solid conclusions about their benefits difficult.
Existing evidence suggests that probiotics can reduce the risk of developing certain respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. Probiotics also seem to reduce the length of time that an infection lasts.
The latest study, published in the European Journal of Public Health, takes these findings one step further. The scientists wanted to uncover whether consuming probiotics regularly might also reduce the need for antibiotics.
To bolster the existing evidence, they dipped into data from recent studies; their paper is the first systematic review to explore the relationship between probiotic use and antibiotic use.
In all, their review found 12 relevant randomized controlled trials, all of which investigated daily doses of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium on infants and children.
Following analysis, the scientists concluded that infants and children who took a daily probiotic supplement were 29 percent less likely to be prescribed antibiotics. When they repeated the analysis using only the highest-quality studies, that figure jumped to 53 percent.
Reduce antibiotics with probiotics
Senior investigator Dr. Daniel Merenstein, from the Department of Family Medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington D.C., believes that the results could have wide-ranging implications.
"Given this finding, potentially one way to reduce the use of antibiotics is to use probiotics on a regular basis."
Dr. Daniel Merenstein
This study only looked at acute infections in younger people — so, as lead study author Sarah King explains, "More studies are needed in all ages, and particularly in the elderly, to see if sustained probiotic use is connected to an overall reduction in antibiotic prescriptions."
If confirmed, the findings could be important. She goes on, "[T]his could potentially have a huge impact on the use of probiotics in general medicine and consumers in general."
Aside from further explorations that examine other age groups, the researchers also want to delve into the nuts and bolts of this relationship; Dr. Merenstein explains one such theory, saying, "We don't know all the mechanisms probiotic strains may leverage."
"But," he continues, "since most of the human immune system is found in the gastrointestinal tract, ingesting healthy bacteria may competitively exclude bacterial pathogens linked to gut infections and may prime the immune system to fight others."
There are around 2 million cases of antibiotic-resistant infections each year in the United States, resulting in 23,000 deaths. Finding ways to reduce antibiotic resistance is urgent; perhaps probiotics might offer some valuable assistance.