New course sheds light on science and health implications of probiotics and prebiotics

ANSC_3318_5618_advt (002)Probiotics are touted as having many health benefits, from treating digestive woes to preventing allergies. A College faculty member is offering a new course that will shed light on the science and health implications of probiotics and prebiotics. Previously offered as a special topics course, the new three-credit course will begin this January and will be offered to both an undergraduate and graduate students. Mary Anne Amalaradjou, assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science, designed the course to fill an unmet need.

In addition to teaching, Amalaradjou is involved in multiple research projects involving probiotics. For one study, she is testing probiotics as a feed additive to eliminate Salmonella in chickens. In another study, she is researching probiotics that occur in cheese to identify a probiotic that may alleviate some of the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease.

The new course begins with the study of the gut microbiome. Amalaradjou uses short videos to explain basic concepts.

“In simplest terms, probiotics are good bacteria that keep us healthy and prebiotics are food that serve as nutrition for the probiotics. Probiotics help not only with the gut, but with every organ system.

Prebiotics are simple fibers, mostly undigested carbohydrates that support probiotics in our digestive system. For example, bananas, chicory root, onion, honey, ginger, garlic and human breast milk contain prebiotics. Some fermented foods, such as yogurt and certain types of sauerkraut, contain probiotics and also serve as a prebiotic. The reason probiotics are taken daily is because the gut microbiome is crowded with trillions of competing organisms, and it’s actually quite difficult for the beneficial bacteria to attach and colonize.

In addition to lectures, discussion and videos, students will examine media articles for scientific validity. Some of the discussion topics include antibiotic resistance and the gut-brain relationship.

“I speak about the role probiotics may play in the fight against drug resistant bacteria,” Amalaradjou says. “We also discuss how the bacteria in your gut has a significant influence on brain function.

“There’s a lot of research about the gut-brain relationship. One example I give my students is how stress affects our GI [gastrointestinal] system. Research shows that chronic stress can change the composition of our gut microbiome. Eventually that may present with other health affects.”

Amalaradjou goes on to explain that our mood is influenced by our GI system. The bacteria within our digestive tract is directly involved in the absorption of tryptophan, an amino acid necessary for the production of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter used by the central nervous system to regulate various functions including sleep, mood and appetite.

“We are still scratching at the surface as we find out more about these good bacteria and the complex relationship we have with probiotics,” Amalaradjou explains.

Graduate students are required to analyze a food or supplement and research its health claims, then present their findings to the undergraduate students. “At the end of the presentations, we taste one of the products,” says Amalaradjou. “That’s just for fun.”

“I want to make sure students understand the role of probiotics and how to make informed decisions about probiotics for their own health, as well as for those pursuing health careers,” she says.

By Kim Colavito Markesich