A study in China is attempting to answer this question by collecting data from 200 infants aged 4-6 months.
There is mounting evidence that probiotics confer a number of health benefits. Probiotics are the “good” bacteria and yeasts found in some yogurts and cheese, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and fermented soy products. The microorganisms used most commonly in dietary supplements include Lactobacillus species, Bifidobacteria, Saccharomyces boulardii and Bacillus coagulans. These microbes are either naturally found in the human gut or are very similar those found in the gut. Studies have shown that probiotics improve health outcomes in cases of gastrointestinal and recurrent urogenital infections, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease conditions (pouchitis, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease), and allergies.
Probiotics have shown promising results in preventing diarrhea and allergies in children. In a previous study, a probiotic supplement containing Bifidobacterium infantis, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and Lactobacillus helveticus was shown to reduce respiratory tract and gastrointestinal infections in school-age children aged 3-7 years during the winter months. These children had suffered three or more episodes of such infections in the previous winter but were otherwise healthy. However, the effects of probiotics on healthy infants have not been examined so far.
A new double-blind study being conducted at the Shanghai First Maternity and Infant Hospital in China attempts to bridge this gap. This study attempts to examine the effects of probiotic supplementation in 100 randomly chosen healthy infants aged 4-6 months. Recruitment of participants, which started in March 2015, is currently in progress. To meet the study criteria, the infants need to be healthy, single birth, of normal gestational age (> 37 weeks) and birth weight (> 2500 grams), and not have suffered from gastrointestinal disease or have a record of antibiotic use in the previous month.
As part of the study, the infant is orally administered a probiotic supplement containing Bifidobacterium infantis R0033, Bifidobacterium bifidum R0071, and Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 dissolved in their first feed of the day for a period of 4 weeks. On the other hand, the control group, also comprised of 100 randomly chosen infants, receives a similar mix of 97% potato starch and 3% magnesium stearate without probiotic supplementation for 4 weeks.
The study intends to examine the populations of “good” and “bad” bacteria in the stools of the two groups of infants at the start and end of the 4-week period. Researchers will look for changes in the populations of Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium longum ssp. infantis, Lactobacillus helveticus, Clostridium perfringens, Enterococcus, Enterobacteria, and Bacteroides. The study also intends to look for changes in the levels of the antibody IgA in the saliva of the infants. In addition, the infants would be monitored for number and duration of crying episodes, stool frequency and amount, compliance with ingestion of the supplement, adverse events, and overall growth.
Colonization of the intestine from the mother’s vaginal and faecal bacteria begins at birth. Microbes are also acquired from the mother’s skin during breast-feeding. It has been found that cesarean section (CS) infants have fewer bacterial counts and less diverse bacterial populations in their intestines as well as higher numbers of antibody producing cells in their blood, which may have lasting effects on immune function. Similarly, the microbial populations in the intestines of breast-fed infants are more diverse and contain larger numbers of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli than formula-fed infants, whereas the latter have higher proportions of “bad” bacteria—the enterococci and enterobacteria. Therefore, the results of this study could be valuable in instances where infants are exclusively formula-fed for various reasons or delivered by CS. For more on the results of this study, watch this space!
Written By: Usha B. Nair, Ph.D.