A clinical trial in older women finds that taking a daily probiotic supplement slows bone loss.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that may offer a health benefit when taken in adequate amounts. Be it from fermented foods such as yoghurt or from a commercial supplement, there is a lot of consumer interest in them.
The clinical evidence for probiotics places treatment of diarrhoea (especially that caused by antibiotics) at the top of the list. A potential benefit in treating irritable bowel syndrome looks likely too. Inflammatory bowel disease, prevention of certain infant allergies such as atopic dermatitis, and an overall general protection against infection also are on the radar, but the science is still evolving.
Bacteria and bones
One very novel avenue for the health benefits of probiotics being explored is their effect on bone health. Considering the major health burden that a disease such as osteoporosis presents, then novel treatments to slow down the loss of bone with age would have a big health impact.
In mice, intestinal bacteria have been found to affect bone health and turnover, potentially by regulating the immune system and cells involved in bone breakdown. Until recently, no similar types of trials have been done in humans.
The latest research
Involving 90 elderly women with an average age of 76 years, Swedish researchers looked at how a daily probiotic supplement could slow down their bone loss. The women were randomised to receive a probiotic supplement or a placebo powder every day for a year. The bacteria in the probiotic was Lactobacillus reuteri 6475 which is naturally found in the gastrointestinal tract.
Scanning by computed tomography (CT) measured bone density at different places in the body at the beginning and end of the study. The women who received the probiotic lost only half the amount of bone in their tibia (which was the main bone site of interest) compared with those who received inactive placebo powders.
Other secondary measures of bone health and inflammation were not significantly different between the groups of women. The probiotic supplement was well tolerated and did not produce any more side effects than those women taking the placebo.
Strengths of the study were the length of time that it ran and the fact that neither the researchers nor the women knew who received the active powder or placebo during the study.
What it all means
In this very first proof-of-concept study, a simple intervention such as taking a daily probiotic appears to offer promise in slowing down bone loss in older women. The results will pave the way for further research in this area as more effective ways to manage and prevent osteoporosis are searched for.