Good digestive health is important to maintain a healthy immune system, as 80% of our body’s immune system is centred in our gut and it is the body’s first line of defence against infections. Unfortunately, Malaysians place little emphasis on digestive health.
Citing from the Ministry of Health’s Health Facts 2017, “Digestive system diseases were the fourth cause of hospitalisation in private hospitals, seventh cause of hospitalisation in government hospitals and sixth cause of death in both government and private hospitals,” says Pusat Perubatan Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (PPUKM) Hospital Canselor Tuanku Muhriz, consultant physician and gastroenterologist, Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi Raja Ali.
Probiotics And Immunity
Probiotics are the ‘good’ bacteria that form part of the collection of microorganisms known as the gut microbiota. It is important to balance between good and bad bacteria for good gut health and good immunity, in addition to healthy lifestyle practices.
Probiotics such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria can help maintain the balance as probiotics can positively affect one’s immune system and may be effective against diseases caused by abnormalities in the immune system.
“Probiotics helps your immune system by forming a barrier on the intestinal wall, which prevents harmful microorganisms from easily infiltrating the mucosal barrier and also modulates the response of the immune system to harmful external threats,” remarks Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi.
Early studies of how probiotics affect immunity have provided scientists with encouraging results by regulating cytokines production. Cytokines are proteins secreted by cells in your body, which includes interferon that prevents virus replication and interleukin that helps regulate immune responses.
“Probiotics potentially affect the immune system. Firstly, by activating immune cells such as phagocytes, which prevent infections. Secondly, they help to prevent excessive immune system responses,” he says.
“This is believed to be the mechanism that potentially inhibits the cascade of inflammation that we seen in conditions like inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs), allergies and autoimmune diseases.”
He added that the main mechanisms that account for the anti-inflammatory activities include suppressing inflammation-causing cytokines such as:
- Interleukin-6 (IL-6), which can support the immune system or be a source of inflammation;
- Interleukin-8 (IL-8), which has an important role in the development of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Therefore, probiotics can have many different effects on our immune system. There are studies revealing how probiotics actually regulate our immune system thus leading to an increase in immunity against diseases caused by a compromised (or abnormal) immune system.
Global researches on probiotics showed positive association between probiotics and immunity. In Europe, a study on children in day care revealed regular daily intake of Lactobacillus helped decrease their risk of upper respiratory tract infections.
An American study on healthy adults who received inﬂuenza vaccination followed by daily consumption of Lactobacillus showed enhanced immune response compared those who did not consume probiotics.
A New Zealand study showed daily intake of probiotics helped to reduce the duration and incidence of infections among elite rugby players.
“These showed that probiotics are able to help our immune system to deal with infections, especially those that spread via the mucosal membrane, such as the inﬂuenza virus. It can be inferred that regular consumption of Lactobacillus is beneficial for potentially better immune responses,” Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi elaborates.
Local Study On Probiotic Benefits
Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi and his PPUKM research team did a study on probiotics efficacy last year and found positive results that the Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus paracasei strains in cultured milk drinks benefited the local research subjects.
The study discovered significant reductions of IL-6 and IL-8 in constipation-predominant irritable bowel syndrome subjects and in healthy subjects. The level for tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha, another important circulating cytokine also dropped.
TNF-alpha is a type of chemical released in the blood, usually associated with acute and chronic inflammatory conditions including cancer.
The same study also found improvements in digestive health which includes:
- Up to 33% reduction (between 5-15 hours) in intestinal transit time – the time taken for food to travel from mouth through the digestive tract and eliminated as stool;
- 96% of respondents reported significant improvements in constipation symptoms;
- 45% of respondents spent less time in toilet;
- 36% of respondents experienced less straining;
- 31% of respondents had softer stools.
However, Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi was quick to caution against relying purely on probiotics for digestive health. His recommendation was to stick to the basics, namely eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting sufficient sleep and managing our stress levels.
“A healthy lifestyle is gold standard if you truly want to minimise your risk of disease and to ensure that your health and well-being do not suffer,” he advises.