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Probiotics: do we really need them?

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Many experts argue that good health begins in the gut while poor gut function, due to an imbalance of gut bacteria, can lay us open to digestive disorders and a host of other health problems. Probiotics, friendly bacteria, which have been described as the body’s silent partners in health, can help restore the balance.

Why is the gut so important for health?
Your gut houses 70 per cent of your immune system, making it massively important to health and wellbeing. It is also literally teeming with microorganisms - mostly bacteria, which are collectively known as gut microflora.

What is the role of gut microflora?
A proper balance of good and bad bacteria is necessary to synthesise vitamins, minerals and other nutrients from food, enable the breakdown of fibre in food, and help produce short chain fatty acids, which in turn help regulate insulin and blood sugar levels. It also helps protect against infection, as well as helping to maintain a healthy immune system, and good brain function.

What can upset gut microflora?
All sorts of things from a poor diet to stress and the overuse of antibiotics. When this happens the good bacteria can no longer thrive and the bad bacteria begin to take over. The result? Problems ranging from digestive upsets to other health issues that at first sight may appear to have nothing to do with the gut – for example obesity, ADHD, autism and mental health problems.

Can you do anything to restore the balance?
Yes, probiotics - micro organisms, mostly bacteria but also some yeasts – can help promote healthy microflora. They’re found naturally in fermented foods such as live (bio) yoghurts and cheeses, sauerkraut, miso soup and sourdough bread. They are also available dried in capsules or pills.

Is it best to take a supplement or get probiotics from food?
Most of us don’t consume enough fermented foods to get a significant amount of probiotics. Also you can’t tell which probiotics they contain. That’s why supplements and/or fortified foods are best. After that it’s your call. Capsules and tablets are handy to take and store at home or carry with you. They are also tasteless, but if you like the flavour of yoghurt shots you may prefer to get your probiotics that way.

Are all probiotics the same?
The two main kinds are lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, strains of which have been well researched and are safe and effective. Newer types are emerging, such as bacilli, eubacteria and roseburia, which look promising. However, we haven’t studied these as thoroughly so we don’t know yet whether they will prove to have the same benefits.

What are the health benefits?
You are unlikely to ‘feel’ the effects directly, but you may notice your gut is better behaved and that you get fewer problems such as flatulence, constipation and/or diarrhoea. You may also find you are better able to resist infections. Taking a regular probiotic can act as a sort of health insurance, which can help your body function better in the short term and may protect against longer-term health problems, such as food intolerance and allergies, acne, obesity, mental health issues, digestive cancers and dementia.

Can any supplements boost the effectiveness of probiotics?
Yes – prebiotics which act as ‘fertilisers’ for probiotics. Among the most effective prebiotics are what experts call fructooligosaccharides (FOS), that occur naturally in foods such as chicory root, asparagus, onions and garlic, and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), that can be found in fermented dairy products such as yoghurt, buttermilk and kefir. Again to get a really effective dose it’s a good idea to take a prebiotic supplement. These can be powdered or added to foods such as cereals, drinks and baked products.

How should I take probiotics?
You can take them after an infection such as flu, traveller’s diarrhoea, cystitis or a course of antibiotics to help rebalance gut bacteria or as a daily nutritional supplement to boost gut and overall health.

Are there any side effects?
The unique selling point of probiotics is their impeccable safety record, so long as the product is genuine and well researched.

GET LABEL WISE

Look out for:

  • The specific probiotic organisms included (e.g. Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium lactis).
  • The number of active, live organisms (colony forming units or CFU) per dose – look for at least 10,000,000, the more the better.
  • Recommended uses based on scientific studies.
  • Storage information.
  • Contact information for the company

A revolution?
More than 10,000 research articles on probiotics have been published recently. If translated into probiotic supplements, this could open up a new era in healthcare.


Glenn Gibson is Professor of Food Microbiology and Head of Food Microbial Sciences at Reading University.

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Nutrition Expert sources the latest information and advice from a range of qualified doctors, nutritionists and coaches. We always endeavour to have the most up to date information possible and publish new content weekly. However with the constant research in this field sometimes some of our older articles can become out of date. If you see anything that you believe needs to be updated please let us know via our Contact Us page