Malnutrition rates remain unacceptably high around the globe, with serious consequences including stunting and wasting. UNICEF estimates a staggering 49.48 million children under the age of five are malnourished to the point of wasting, with almost half of the deaths in this demographic attributable to poor nutrition. In those who survive, physical and mental sequela can last a lifetime. Yet, hope may be found in an unlikely place.
Philanthropist and entrepreneur Bill Gates believes that probiotics could provide an important answer. According to an article published in The Daily Telegraph, Gates believes within two decades probiotic pills could help to prevent malnutrition and unlock better health.
How could this simple answer possibly smooth the way for enhanced nutrition and wellbeing?
In a variety of complicated ways…
While lack of food is an obvious contributor to malnutrition, there are a range of other factors including recurring infections, weakened immune function, and an imbalance in the intestinal microbiome. The latter has only recently begun to receive the attention it deserves.
The gut is filled with billions of tiny bacteria, viruses and fungi. These bugs are complex, active and play crucial roles in the development of the immune system and in how well we digest, create and absorb nutrients.
When the microbiome population is unhealthily skewed, immune function becomes impaired. The tiny soldiers that are designed to protect the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) falter, and the bad bugs, instead of being killed off, thrive. Holes develop in protective gut wall lining, allowing foreign invaders and their toxins to move from the GIT and into the body. This results in systemic and local inflammation results, leading to problems with adequate nutrient absorption and, potentially, conditions like diarrhea.
In diarrhea, undigested food rushes through the gastrointestinal tract. Appetite drops and both macro and micronutrient malabsorption occurs. Unsurprisingly, this leads to further damage to the gut and adversely effects the strains of bugs that reside there. This creates a vicious cycle in vulnerable communities and tummies.
Yet, probiotics can help to prevent diarrhea, lessen its duration, and speed recovery. This, simply put, may protect against the ravages of malnutrition.
Illness aside, the gut microbiome plays a pivotal role in how well nutrients are created and absorbed.
The production of compounds called short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) occurs in the gut as complex carbohydrates are broken down. These SCFA’s then feed and protect the cells that line the colon.
Plus, as the study Childhood malnutrition and the intestinal microbiome noted:
Gut bacteria also produce vitamins (B3, B5, B6, B12, biotin, tetrahydrofolate, and vitamin K) and promote the absorption of minerals.
In health, the gut lining and its billions of inhabitants forms an intricate web that protects against damage, produces the nutrients required for self-preservation and general health, and safely guides and expels potentially harmful toxins.
With greater research, we may soon be able to harness the power of probiotics to reduce malnourishment and aid faster recovery from the conditions — like diarrhoea — that make this serious condition more prevalent.