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The NHS advice on probiotics underestimates the health benefits

3 min read

Probiotics are live bacteria in yoghurt and other dairy products, there are hundreds of species available and some are thought to play in role in helping conditions such as irritable bowl syndrome. However it is still not clear which species of probiotic are the most effective and the overall health benefits are yet to be medically proven. Probiotics are easy to consume if dairy products form part of your daily diet but must be kept alive in order to work and unfortunately can killed by heat or stomach acid.

Concern has been raised that the NHS has underestimated potential health benefits

The Probiotics association has voiced concern the the UK's updated NHS advice on probiotics underestimates the potential health benefits of probiotics outside the digestive tract. The exact statement made with the NHS system's guidelines is a follows:

"Probiotics are thought to help restore the natural balance of your gut bacteria when it has been disrupted. 

However, there is little evidence to support most health claims made for them."Further to this, the NHS Choices Online advice states: "There's likely to be a huge difference between the pharmaceutical-grade probiotics that show promise in clinical trials and the 'probiotic' yoghurts and supplements sold in shops, which may not live up to the advertised claims."

Scientists believe the NHS are ignoring significant advances and evidence of their benefits

Dr Ellen Sanders of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) believes that the new guidance ignores some more important advances and evidence in support of probiotic benefits.

The advice outlined health benefits and conditions probiotics had been associated with including antibiotic associated diarrhoea, persistent diarrhoea, protecting premature babies from gut disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), lactose intolerance, colic, immune system vaginal conditions, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and eczema. However at the same time it states "Generally, it's hard to see how swallow-able bacteria could have an effect on conditions outside of the digestive tract." In this statement Sanders believes a wealth of information is ignored - specifically how microbes can affect a range of body systems including the immune system, brain function and metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes.

Scientific studies have provided strong evidence backing probiotics

Of particular concern to Dr Sanders is the "flagrant understatement" that probiotics could reduce the likelihood babies contracting a condition whereby tissues in the baby's gut become inflamed and start to die - she said there is strong evidence for this benefit which should be recognised by the guidelines.

Dr Luca Bucchini (a specialist in risk assessment and regulatory consulting in the food sector) said he could not agree with a statement that the food industry faced a less rigorous testing and approval process than the medical sector. He also stated his disappointment that NHS Choices says that yoghurt does not help people with lactose intolerance, whereas there is an approved health claim that consumers can trust: live cultures in yoghurt or fermented milk improve lactose digestion of the product in individuals who have difficulty digesting lactose".

This being said, Dr Bucchini states helping consumers navigate promising but not definitive evidence on specific conditions as well as pointing out the different characteristics of each probiotic strain was a step in the right direction. He added that by providing positive research results it reflects the more subtle nature of science in comparison to the black and white yes/no of the health claims approval system.

Dr Sanders acknowledged that the guidelines rightly cautions consumers that not all probiotic products are equivalent and that some may not contain effective types or levels of strains as well as advising people to try probiotic products and assess for themselves as to their ability to produce a desired or intended result.

A healthy balanced diet is the best way to consume all the nutrients we need. Sometimes however this isn't possible and then supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying any supplements or herbal medicines.