The yogurt section in the grocery store has gotten pretty complicated. Instead of just choosing between regular and light, or fruit on the bottom versus premixed varieties, customers can now select what kind of bacteria they wish to devour with each cold spoonful.
Yogurt manufacturers have long marketed the “live, active cultures” in their products, but Dannon, Yoplait and other industry giants have recently introduced new brands of specialized yogurts containing trademarked microbial strains. Scientists continue to conduct research into how these microbes may contribute to healthy living. A study published in the British Medical Journal last year supported the medicinal benefits of yogurt, though in a limited setting. It showed that geriatric hospital patients who drank a probiotic yogurt beverage were less likely to suffer from diarrhea caused by ongoing antibiotic treatment. But some nutritionists remain skeptical about the potential advantages that probiotics can offer most people.
Despite its narrow range of participants, the study confirmed that probiotic yogurt aided many of those involved. “We have shown that simply giving a probiotic drink to elderly patients who are prescribed antibiotics reduces their risk of getting diarrhea,” says Mary Hickson, a research dietician at Imperial College in London and the lead author of the study.
Gastrointestinal illness is a common side effect in an antibiotic’s battle against bacterial infection. Antibiotics don’t just go after the bad guys — they also kill some of the beneficial or neutral place-holding flora in our digestive tracts. This collateral damage allows deleterious organisms to establish themselves, often inflicting abdominal distress and discomfort as a result. Yogurt, like other “probiotic” foods, helps to promotes the growth of favorable bacteria in our digestive tracts. These microorganisms assist us in absorbing nutrients from our food and also occupy valuable real estate so that pathogens cannot proliferate and make us sick.
The British study monitored 113 patients taking antibiotics predominantly for respiratory ailments or prophylactic reasons before or after surgery. During antibiotic treatment, subjects consumed two daily servings of a Dannon probiotic yogurt drink called Actimel. Half of the participants drank a sterile milkshake as a placebo instead. Stool samples were analyzed for solidarity and for the presence of a particularly harmful bacterium, Clostridium difficile. This opportunistic microbe afflicts about one in five hospital patients on antibiotics.
The study found that just over one in 10 of those patients ingesting the probiotic product was stricken with diarrhea, but none caught C. difficile. In contrast, a third of those on the placebo had diarrhea, and 17 percent came down with a case of C. difficile.
“This is exciting research as it provides evidence for a new treatment that can be put into practice now and could save the health service money,” says Hickson.
Her paper refers to a previous study led by Lorraine Kyne of University College Dublin in Ireland, which indicated that hospital patients with bouts of C. difficileincur almost $3,700 each in additional expenses. Increased hospital stays and antibiotic reinforcements to eradicate the infection lead to these higher bills, but fortunately for sufferers, insurance picks up the tab. All told though, Kyne’s paper conservatively estimates the annual cost overruns related to C. difficile as $1.1 billion in the United States alone. Comparatively, a full course of the Actimel supplements in Hickson’s study that help ward off the malignant microbe only costs about $100.