Many pharmacies stock probiotics on their shelves, but when asked by customers which probiotic to recommend, what evidence and information do pharmacists have about these products, to make an informed recommendation?
Probiotics are live microorganisms intended to provide health benefits when consumed, generally by improving or restoring the gut flora and considered safe to consume. They are classified as dietary supplements, not medicines, meaning they are not regulated by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. This also means there is no clear clinical guidance around their usage. Being a foodstuff has its benefits, namely the safety aspect, but do they work, and are they effective? SymproveTM Limited has been pioneering and supporting clinical research and development into the microbiome for over 25 years and has a dedicated research team. There is demand, and a clear need, for better information and training in products in this area.
A lack of evidence and sensationalist media stories have both negatively affected the way people view supplements and probiotics. To counteract this, factual and evidence-based information needs to be provided to both consumers and healthcare professionals. Do consumers and healthcare professionals know the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria? What are the differences between freeze-dried, yoghurt and water-based probiotics? Symprove believes that education around questions such as these will help to build trust, as well as improve understanding about the microbiome and the benefits of probiotics.
We have been asked the questions, ‘why is there an increasing focus on gut health?’ and ‘are probiotics and supplements really necessary to improve our gut health; can’t we get everything we need from food?’ If you don’t know the answers, you are certainly not alone within the clinical profession. Modern lifestyles mean that the microbiome can become unbalanced: stress, consumption of processed foods, antibiotics and other chemicals/toxins in our environment can all contribute to gut flora imbalance. We believe the microbiome can be optimised to best support each individual and their health. To reverse gut imbalance, the microbiome needs to be supported. This can only be achieved if the probiotic can arrive, survive, thrive and drive further colonisation in the gut. Whilst there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence available – how, for example, a probiotic has helped someone with their stomach aches, headaches or similar – there is limited clinical evidence to show the effectiveness of most probiotics. This is why we are leading and supporting research into the impact of Symprove on the microbiome and the human body.
Many people turn to probiotics because of gut issues and unfortunately, there is no quick fix. It takes time for a damaged microbiome to be restored, in some cases even up to three months of feeding with live and active probiotics.
An imbalance microbiome needs live and active bacteria to help feed the microbiome. To do this we need to clearly differentiate the different probiotics available to the consumer e.g. yoghurt-based foods from supplements, which contain multi-strains of live, activated bacteria. We need to also differentiate from supplements that can arrive, survive and thrive in the gut, from those which do not. These are not intended to replace certain foods, instead they support a healthy diet.
It is important for pharmacists to seek further information and understanding in probiotics and related products for gut health. However, I also believe it is the responsibility of the food supplements and probiotics industry to provide education for pharmacists – who are often the first point of contact for a patient with gut related issues. As an industry, we need to take responsibility for providing educational material to help pharmacists make informed recommendations for their patients about probiotics.
Cathy Erwin is Head of Marketing at SymproveTM Limited.