Spotlight on: probiotics

We take a look at the health benefits of probiotics, and some things to bear in mind when choosing a supplement

Good gut health is essential for maintaining our overall health and wellbeing. The health of our gut has an effect on everything from our digestive system to our immunity and even our mental health.

Our gut is home to a huge mass of bacteria known as the ‘microbiome’. Some of these bacteria are ‘good’ or beneficial to our health whereas others are ‘bad’ or harmful. Ideally, our gut should contain more good bacteria in order to keep the bad bacteria in check, but this is not always the case. One of the main ways to ensure a good balance of bacteria in the gut is to take a probiotic. But with so many different types and strains available, as well as a whole variety of probiotic foods, how do you decide which one to go for? We asked our natural health experts to give us the lowdown on probiotics and how to choose the right one for you.

A good gut feeling

“Probiotics are ‘healthy’ gut bacteria and yeast that are naturally found in the body and can be created by the process of fermentation in foods like kimchi and kefir,” explains Kajsa Ernestam, in-house dietitian from the global health app, Lifesum (www.lifesum.com). “Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that probiotics can help promote a healthy immune system, prevent constipation and diarrhoea and are especially good for the digestive system.” Kajsa adds: “In addition, researchers are increasingly indicating that there may be a link between the bacteria in your gut and your mood. This is due to the fact that when probiotics are digested, it is thought that they may help to reduce stress as well as boost your mood.”

Friendly bacteria

“The friendly bacteria in our gut help food to be digested and absorbed,” explains nutritionist Cassandra Barns. “Some types produce a substance called lactic acid, which is thought to support the natural release of digestive juices and enzymes in the gut. They can also help to digest lactose – the natural sugars in milk and other dairy foods. If the friendly bacteria are not around to do their job, lactose or other carbohydrates can remain undigested, and this can lead to more fermentation and bloating. The friendly bacteria in our gut also help to prevent overgrowth of the ‘unfriendly’ bacteria and yeasts that can cause bloating. And some of them are also thought to encourage normal bowel movements, preventing constipation. For all of these reasons, having a good population of beneficial flora in our gut can prevent bloating. So probiotic supplements, which provide some of these beneficial bacteria, can also help us keep a flat tummy.” Probiotics can also help to control the amount of yeast overgrowth in the body. “Yogurt has shown to be helpful in preventing attacks of yeast, but a probiotic supplement goes one step further to actually treat a yeast infection,” explains Dr Marilyn Glenville, author of The Natural Health Bible for Women (www.naturalhealthpractice.com). “The difference is that lactobacillus levels in yogurt are high enough to work on a preventative basis, but they will not be concentrated enough to deal with an infection.”

Did you know?

According to research, 70 per cent of our immune system lies in our gut.

Probiotic foods

There is a whole variety of probiotic-rich foods that can be added to the diet. These include things such as yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh and miso. In addition to this, a trend that may well begin to flourish in 2019 is water kefir. Kajsa explains: “Traditional kefir has been on the market for some time and is made from milk that is fermented, which means that it contains beneficial bacterial strains and probiotics, which can help to calm down your stomach and kick-start your day. It works like a drinkable yogurt and is a perfect finish to a big meal. It does contain lactose, however, and is therefore not appropriate for vegans or those that are lactose intolerant. Water kefir, on the other hand, is a vegan alternative, that is made from fermenting water or coconut water with kefir grains, a combination of lactic acid, bacteria, and yeasts.”

Probiotics and prebiotics

“Probiotic and prebiotics sound similar, but are actually very different,” says Kajsa. “Prebiotics are the non-digestible dietary fibre in foods such as bananas, beans and onions. This fibre works as food for the probiotics and, as such, helps to stimulate their growth in the gastrointestinal tract, which is why foods high in fibre are so important.”

How to choose the right probiotic

When it comes to choosing a probiotic supplement, the various options and strains that are available can seem a little confusing.

“I would recommend keeping an eye out for quality strains with gold standard clinical trials,” says Naomi Osun, assistant customer care and nutritional advisor with OptiBac Probiotics (www.optibacprobiotics.co.uk). “Different probiotic strains have different benefits to the body and this takes me to my next point; don’t always opt for the highest number of strains or the highest strength available on the market. Instead, make sure you select a probiotic with strains shown to help your specific condition – even if the product contains fewer strains. Look out for product reviews from trusted external sites too.”

Identify the strains

“The term ‘strain’ refers to a biological variant of a ‘species’ and often there are tens, if not hundreds of strains within a species,” Naomi explains. “Each strain of bacteria can have different actions in the body. Take the example of Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1® and Lactobacillus rhamnosus Rosell-11. Both of these are strains within the Lactobacillus rhamnosus species, however the GR-1 strain has been shown to support vaginal health, while the Rosell-11 strain has been extensively researched for antibiotic support and gut health. So it’s important to make sure you can identify the strains of the bacteria in a probiotic supplement.”

Naomi continues: “Some species are commonly mistaken as a strain and a good example is Lactobacillus acidophilus. However, Lactobacillus is the ‘genus’, and acidophilus a ‘species’ within the Lactobacillus genus. How do you identify the strain of bacteria in a probiotic supplement? Well, the strain name usually consists of numbers and letters, which often indicate a microbiology institute e.g. Lactobacillus acidophilus ‘NCFM®’ = ‘North Carolina Food Microbiology’ research centre. It’s only at this level that a probiotic can really be judged on its worth, as the strain name points towards the research and the quality of the probiotic.”

Look at the numbers

“When looking at the strength of a probiotic supplement (i.e. the number of colony forming units in the supplement), go for at least 1 billion microorganisms per daily dose, instead of simply millions,” says Naomi. “With that being said, we don’t need to focus solely on billions count – there is no use in taking hundreds of billions if the probiotic strains are not of a high quality! In fact the quality of the strain or combination of strains in a probiotic supplement should be the first thing to consider, over and above the number of billions. Some clinical trials have seen better results in participants on lower doses of certain probiotics compared to those taking higher a dose. So, taking higher billions isn’t always necessary – and certainly isn’t the most important factor to focus on.”

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