Published online by Cambridge University Press: 09 March 2007
Probiotic ingestion can be recommended as a preventative approach to maintaining the balance of the intestinal microflora and thereby enhance ‘well-being’. Research into the use of probiotic intervention in specific illnesses and disorders has identified certain patient populations that may benefit from the approach. Undoubtedly, probiotics will vary in their efficacy and it may not be the case that the same results occur with all species. Those that prove most efficient will likely be strains that are robust enough to survive the harsh physico-chemical conditions present in the gastrointestinal tract. This includes gastric acid, bile secretions and competition with the resident microflora. A survey of the literature indicates positive results in over fifty human trials, with prevention/treatment of infections the most frequently reported output. In theory, increased levels of probiotics may induce a ‘barrier’ influence against common pathogens. Mechanisms of effect are likely to include the excretion of acids (lactate, acetate), competition for nutrients and gut receptor sites, immunomodulation and the formation of specific antimicrobial agents. As such, persons susceptible to diarrhoeal infections may benefit greatly from probiotic intake. On a more chronic basis, it has been suggested that some probiotics can help maintain remission in the inflammatory conditions, ulcerative colitis and pouchitis. They have also been suggested to repress enzymes responsible for genotoxin formation. Moreover, studies have suggested that probiotics are as effective as anti-spasmodic drugs in the alleviation of irritable bowel syndrome. The approach of modulating the gut flora for improved health has much relevance for the management of those with acute and chronic gut disorders. Other target groups could include those susceptible to nosocomial infections, as well as the elderly, who have an altered microflora, with a decreased number of beneficial microbial species. For the future, it is imperative that mechanistic interactions involved in probiotic supplementation be identified. Moreover, the survival issues associated with their establishment in the competitive gut ecosytem should be addressed. Here, the use of prebiotics in association with useful probiotics may be a worthwhile approach. A prebiotic is a dietary carbohydrate selectively metabolised by probiotics. Combinations of probiotics and prebiotics are known as synbiotics.