Australian research has shown the power of probiotics to help Type 2 diabetics lose weight, but experts warn they're not a 'magic bullet cure' for many health and gut-related issues.
In October 2015, David Burns weighed roughly 110kg and was diagnosed as Type 2 diabetic. “I call myself a sugar addict … if I could survive off it, I would,” he says.
David knew he was pre-diabetic for years, but it wasn’t until he got involved in a new pilot trial at the University of Sydney that he officially knew he was insulin-resistant.
“I took [being diagnosed as] Type 2 to be a slap in the face. I didn’t want to be at a point of insulin-resistance and the medical problems that come with it … to me it was serious," he says. "I needed to do something then and there.”
The trial was that of Medlab director of research and Professor of Medicine, Luis Vitetta, and Professor Ian Carterson, alongside PhD student Talia Palacios, and it involved a series of diet and lifestyle changes as well as taking a probiotic.
“We wanted to see if we could administer a multi-strain probiotic … to prevent the progression and control of Type two diabetes and the [adverse] metabolic markers that come with it," Professor Vitetta explains.
David had heard of probiotics but had no idea what to expect. Eighteen months down the track, he has reversed his diabetes and weighs in at 80 kilograms. The first 25 kilograms came off in two months.
The double-blind, placebo-controlled trial was conducted over twelve weeks with sixty pre-, and recently-diagnosed Type 2 diabetics. Split into two groups, participants prescribed medication (Metformin) were included in both groups and started low-intensity physical activity with good nutritional practice.
“Both groups adhered to the lifestyle changes and one group administered probiotics, and the other group administered a placebo instead. So, they have the same requirements but only half are getting the placebo,” Professor Vitetta clarifies.
While data is still being analysed, he says the results are very strong as diabetic markers for the probiotic group improved significantly faster than those who were given the placebo.
“When you are pre-diabetic, I truly believe that if one makes lifestyle changes and also takes a probiotic with evidence attached, one can reverse the onset and save millions for the health care system and improve the lives of these people.”
Probiotics were first identified more than 100 years ago as live microorganisms thought to provide a health benefit to the host organism - or the person taking them.
They are commonly consumed as part of fermented foods with specially-added, active live cultures, such as in yoghurt, or as dietary supplements in the form of tablets or capsules.
Consumers are offered a wide range of choices regarding the probiotics they can purchase and the forms they come in. Professor Vitetta says while probiotics are safe, it is highly unlikely the ones you buy off the shelf at the supermarket are doing anything at all.
Associate Professor Andrew Holmes, from Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, agrees. Appearing on this week’s Insight exploring gut health, he says probiotics will be useful where you’re missing the specific benefit a particular probiotic offers to replenish, but they won’t help if you’re generally healthy in that area to begin with.
“There’s no particular risk in taking them,” he tells Insight’s Jenny Brockie, “but you shouldn’t be taking them thinking that it’s going to be a magic bullet cure, because the way the gut works is far more complex."
A probiotic is … not a panacea, but an adjunctive medicine; effective under certain circumstances.
The team at the University of Sydney and Medlab spent two years researching probiotic species in a medical lab, before coming up with their winning probiotic formula.
So while Professor Vitetta has high hopes for their potential, he is quick to stress that at this stage, probiotics are not a fix-all solution, “A probiotic is … not a panacea, but an adjunctive medicine; effective under certain circumstances”.
David was given the real (probiotic) deal and with his modified diet and a short walk every day, he’s feeling healthier than ever. “Diet was the biggest change," he says. "I cut all sugary food out and I’m eating correct foods and measuring … the right quantities.”
He’s on a new path now and he’s sticking to it.
Watch the full episode of Gut Feeling