If you are reading this, you are probably aware that bad bacteria in the gut can cause infections, in many cases requiring treatment with antibiotics. However, did you also know that your gut contains trillions of GOOD bacteria which help the body maintain digestion, produce vitamin B and K, and play an important role in maintaining your immune system?
It is no secret that being healthy requires a strong immunity to provide defence against pathogens, and one of the best ways to strengthen the immune system is to strengthen the population of good bacteria present in the gut, also known as the gut microbiota/flora. The gut microbiota is acquired during birth and altered during one's lifetime by factors such as diet, antibiotic use and environmental factors.
Our gut, the largest immune organ of the human body, makes up 80% of our immune system and coordinates an immune response when harmful micro-organisms are present in the body. This process usually occurs rapidly in healthy individuals. Unfortunately for people with decreased immunity such as those suffering from a chronic illness and even antimicrobial resistance (AMR), the gut microbiota is often out of balance. This may result in an ongoing cycle of acquiring infections and being treated by antibiotics more often.
How probiotics can prevent infections and reduce medical side-effects
You may now be wondering, how do probiotics come into the picture? Probiotics are live bacteria, which can be ingested through food or supplements in order to help return and maintain levels of good bacteria. Although probiotics will not fight an already existing infection, especially in severe cases such as AMR, they can help to prevent infections by keeping the gut healthy and balanced, as well as being useful for patients during a course of antibiotics. Although probiotics naturally occur in dairy and other fermented products, the quantities of the bacteria present are nowhere near those in probiotic supplements.
But wait. Before you go running to the pharmacy to buy yourself probiotic supplements, they are not to be mistaken as a substitute for antibiotics. Probiotics will not treat an illness, but they may reduce side effects from the medicine when taken simultaneously. "There’s preliminary evidence that some probiotics are helpful at preventing infections and side effects caused by antibiotics, as well as in many cases improving symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome." Much more needs to be learned about probiotics, but their potential in maintaining health, preventing infection and reducing side effects of antibiotics should not be underestimated.
Written by Mara Perkuma, vice-chair of the AMR-committee