Eating More “Good Bugs” For Optimal Health

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It is hard to imagine eating “good bugs” to maintain and restore health. This method of replenishing your “good” bacterial load to counteract diseases including those caused by “bad” bacteria is called probiotics.

In Canada, research has typically been lacking in this area compared to Europe but things are changing. The Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund recently awarded a $1.8M grant to develop the Canadian Research and Development Centre for Probiotics. The Centre will be located at the Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ontario and will include members from The University of Western Ontario, the University of Guelph and the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. Eighteen top scientists will work in the field of probiotics and prebiotics along with communities and industry partners. As well, the Centre will recruit three new scientists, seven technicians, and train over 40 students within the next three years.

Dr. Gregor Reid, Director of the Canadian Research and Development Centre for Probiotics and Scientist at the Lawson Health Research Institute says, “At birth, we inherit organisms from our mother’s vaginal canal and from our surroundings through handling and feeding. Diet, gender, race, genetic elements of our body and other factors including exposure to drugs dictate which bugs remain in our system. Each of us has a unique bacterial composition in the gut. Depending upon the flora and our immune reaction, our lives could be changed significantly. We eat way too much salt, refined sugar and fat, and almost no ‘good’ bacteria’. Organisms, particularly lactobacilli were once used to preserve meat and prepare sauerkraut. Mounting evidence links these ‘good’ bacteria with preventing and treating gastrointestinal diseases, vaginal and bladder infections, possibly lowering cholesterol, preventing allergies, and reducing the risk of certain cancers and kidney stones.”

One problem for consumers is in knowing whether or not a so-called probiotic actually works! The key is in the definition of probiotics: “Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host”. Manufacturers need to show that the strain(s) of bacteria in their product have actually been proven to benefit the host. In Canada, almost no products have this evidence. In case you want to check, you simply look for a strain number or name on the label, such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, then do a Medline search (a library search engine) to see if medical papers exist for its benefits. If a product doesn’t even give a name to the strain and simply calls it, Lactobacillus acidophilus, this tells you nothing about what it can do. Next step is to make sure the organisms are viable at time of use (not at time of manufacture) – many die if not stored in the refrigerator and only a few companies make room temperature stable products – like Wampole’s ProFlora.

One proposed project of the Centre would be to better understand how bacteria talk to one another, with a view to having the good bacteria keep the harmful ones in check. For example, two of the Lactobacillus strains being tested have been shown to stop E. coli 0157 (the Walkerton or hamburger disease bug) from growing. Potentially, ingestion of ‘good’ bugs as capsules or dairy products could have a number of health benefits including prevention of diarrhea and fatal complications. Clinical trials using these strains have shown promising results.

Another project will study the use of probiotic and prebiotic remedies as a natural replacement for antibiotics in pig livestock. Such steps could, in time, reduce spillage of bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli from chickens, cattle and pigs, as well as improve farming practices.

In addition, the Centre will focus its research on ways to restore and maintain human health. Dr. Reid asks “Are you healthy, and if so how do you know?” The answer is there are few if any tests for “health” only ones for disease. Therefore, apart from nutrition and lifestyle, there are few remedies designed to restore and retain health. Besides processing food, the human gut is critical for survival. Bacteria colonize the gut at birth, and then influence how well the body resists infection, cancer, diabetes and other potential ailments, yet little attention has been paid to which bacteria are optimal for well-being. Intake of specific ‘good’ bacteria at birth, as well as later in life could greatly influence health. In women, the disruption of gut and vaginal flora can result in yeast and bladder infections, and there is now good evidence that probiotics can reduce these problems.

The health and economic implications of probiotics for Canadians are extensive. Probiotics are the mainstay of health in Japan and parts of Europe. North America is primed for this approach to health. Get ready to eat more bacteria!!

For more information about the Canadian Research and Development Centre for Probiotics, visit its website at www.crdc-probiotics.ca