Written by Amanda Green, Pharmacist.
Nobody likes to be unwell. Especially not the sort of unwell where you find yourself bound to the toilet for 24 hours or more!
Gastroenteritis, or gastro as it is commonly known, can cause diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach cramps and fever. Headache and fatigue from dehydration often result as the amount of fluid we take in does not meet the amount being lost. Gastro can be caused by viruses (e.g. rotavirus), bacteria (e.g. salmonella) or parasites (e.g. giardia). It is easily spread, and anyone living in a household with small children knows this fact all too well.
Our gut (stomach, intestines and bowel) contains thousands of microorganisms, often referred to as ‘gut flora’. Our gut flora, the good guys, have many functions. They are responsible for aiding digestion, the synthesis of vitamins, and protection for the gut and the rest of the body against unhealthy bacteria, fungi and parasites. When our body succumbs to an infection, the army of good guys in our gut are outnumbered by the villains. The end result? Gastro.
How do we treat gastro?
Rehydration is critical and should be commenced as soon as possible. Oral rehydration salt products, in addition to water, are the key to preventing dehydration. There are some prescription medications available, but these are not always recommended.
Is there anything else we can do? Is there a magic pill or potion to get us out of the depths of the bathroom and back to living?
Enter; probiotics, the word derived from Latin, meaning ‘for life’. Are probiotics the elusive magic pill we need? Maybe….
The World Health Organisation tells us that probiotics are “live microorganisms, which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host”. In other words, probiotics are good bacteria or yeasts that can be used to restore the balance in our gut, to help keep our systems healthy and functioning as normal.
Probiotics are available in a variety of forms including tablets, capsules and fermented foods or drinks (sorry… this doesn’t include beer!). People have been ingesting fermented food and beverages for many years. Fermented products are becoming increasingly popular amongst the general public. In recent years the field of probiotics has advanced considerably and research in clinical trials is becoming more prevalent.
Probiotics are often recommended in addition to rehydration for the acute treatment of gastro. Just as there are a multitude of ‘bad’ bacteria that cause different infections, there are also a variety of ’good’ bacteria strains present in probiotics. Each individual strain of good bacteria makes claim for a different health benefit. Within one product we may find anywhere from one to eight strains of probiotic, all present in varying strengths.Like a prescription antibiotic, probiotics are strain-specific, meaning the correct strain and dose are essential to gaining any benefit.
So, is that fermented drink what you actually need for what you’re suffering from?
As a group, probiotics have been to shown to reduce the duration of diarrhoea from gastro by up to one day. The majority of individuals included in trials were young, and the quality of evidence had limitations. Evidence does suggest particular strains of good bacteria are beneficial to treating gastro.Now for the long and confusing names; lactobacillus rhamnosus has been shown to significantly reduce the duration and intensity of gastro symptoms, particularly that caused by rotavirus, one of the most common causes of gastro in Australian children. Research suggests anything less than 10 billion colony forming units (CFU) per day of lactobacillus rhamnosus will not make any difference to an individual. Another option is saccharomyces boulardii, which has also proven benefit to minimise the severity of gastro symptoms by up to one day. These two particular strains aren’t available in all probiotic products, so before you grab something off the shelf or out of the fridge at your local chemist, it would be wise to check the ingredients.
So where do we stand? Do the good bugs help with the stomach bugs? Are probiotics beneficial?
Research has shown, when the bad bugs move in and take over the gut, far outnumbering the resident good guys, the best way to re-establish order is to nourish the gut with probiotics. Ensuring we use the right probiotic at the right dose is critical for any chance of benefit. Whilst scientists may argue the quality of evidence from trials with probiotics, overall, they are safe for use in the general population. Talk to your local pharmacist about probiotics next time you’re in store.
This post was written by Amanda Green. Amanda is a pharmacist with more than 10 years of both hospital and community pharmacy experience. She is a mother of two young children and is passionate about health and fitness.