Probiotics: Not just key to a healthy gut, but a healthy head too

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Move aside acai and wheatgerm, there is a newer and more interesting health product trending, and its name is bacteria. Hold on… What?

You heard  right. Probiotics. Also known as the microorganisms that resemble the naturally occurring bacteria found in one’s gut, probiotics are capable of facilitating countless health functions, from aiding digestion to reducing the risk of infection. Mainstream society’s reaction to the growing popularity of these little critters as a means of addressing gut problems, skincare issues and even cancer is one of shock, which is not surprising given that bacteria typically have a reputation for causing disease as opposed to curing it. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that live bacteria is actually a pretty useful product, and as doctors and patients grow increasingly disillusioned by conventional western medicines probiotic therapy is getting some serious attention.

Now it has been suggested that probiotics can play a central role in scalp health, thanks to its ability to treat itchy, dry scalp skin. According to one trichologist at the Philip Kingsley Clinic of London, the scalp contains more oil glands than any other part of your skin – over 120,000 of them, in fact. This makes the scalp more prone to oil (sebum), clogging, dryness, itchiness and acne than any other part of the body, but too often we fail to treat these conditions because we can’t see past the hair. Unbeknown to many, it is incredibly important to clean, clear and maintain the hair follicles on the scalp, because permanently blocked or obstructed follicles may eventually cease to produce hair at all.

Stress not though, because at last a solution has apparently been found, and it comes in the form of topical probiotics.

According to experts, probiotics can help rebuild and strengthen the scalp’s skin barrier since, while scalp skin is typically self-regulating, if it becomes unbalanced the result can be itchiness, increased scalp sensitivity, dandruff and-in the worst-case scenario – psoriasis. For some years now unsweetened Greek yoghurt has been touted a great ingredient for DIY hair masques, owing to its high levels of protein and the strong presence of bacterial cultures. But now big brands are taking this to the next level, with entire ranges of scalp and skincare beauty products developed using probiotics as the key ingredient. When applied, probiotic-infused skincare lowers the skin’s pH and creates an environment for healthy bacteria, while discouraging the proliferation of unhealthy bacteria. When people regularly use harsh, chemical shampoos and products on their hair they are forgetting the impact they might have on one’s scalp, and probably don’t realise the impact such products have on the scalp’s bacteria microbiome. The result? Slow-growing, damaged hair prone to split ends and an unhealthy scalp. Probiotic-infused hair products, on the other hand, help regulate the microflora of the scalp, allowing for optimal hair growth and sleek, healthy hair.  

Nowadays people are resorting to bizarre and futuristic scalp treatments in order to address hair problems; from applying Minoxidil – the only FDA-approved topical non-prescription medication known to regrow hair quickly, to scalp micropigmentation – the treatment of choice for men and women who want to reverse the appearance of thinning hair, to hair transplant surgery. Who knew that with a dollop of yoghurt, one might be able to achieve the same end goal?

It makes sense, what with probiotic products hailed the solution to a vast range of health problems today, from Crohn’s disease to diarrhea to irritable bowel syndrome. Through creating a healthful bacterial balance within the host’s gut, these live microorganisms play a key role in intestinal function, with benefits including the aiding of digestion, lower blood pressure and even the improvement of cognitive functioning. They are loved and admired for their ability to manufacture vitamin K and vitamin B, while also helping with digestion and stimulating the immune system.

That being said, new research published in the journal Cell Host & Microbiome suggests that under certain conditions, probiotics can actually harm their host due to their ability to evolve once in the gut. A team of researchers who tested a group of rodents with various diets, one featuring probiotics, found that after five weeks the probiotic bacterium had changed to develop new characteristics and had actually harmed the host, eating the protective layer that lines the intestine. While not necessarily conclusive, the experiment confirmed scientists’ suspicions: that while probiotics might thrive in those with healthy guts, with a healthy microbiome, they don’t necessarily thrive in the gut of sick people with a low-diversity, unhealthy microbiome. In such a gut, probiotics are likely to evolve, change characteristics and cause potential longer-term damage.

Chances are, though, that one’s scalp is safe from such risks and would not suffer the same damage seen in these experiments, especially since topically applied products are washed away after a short period of time, giving them no time to ‘stick around and cause damage’. As consumers become more and more attached to the promises of probiotics, there is no doubt we will see the proliferation of probiotic-infused scalp care products in the coming years.

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