Probiotics are becoming a regular part of life for many people, but with so many different options available it can be tricky to know where to start. Here we unravel some of the common queries and misconceptions about probiotics so you can maximise the benefits to health.
Probiotics and health
Good gut health is imperative to good nutrition; if the gut is not in top condition then absorption of nutrients from food will be compromised. Beneficial bacteria line the intestine and are essential for maintenance of a healthy digestive system, but a diet high in sugar and saturated fats negatively affects the composition of the microflora, causing the wrong type of bacteria to proliferate. As well as preventing digestive problems (like bloating, constipation and diarrhoea), beneficial bacteria support the immune function, reduce allergies, improve cholesterol levels and can even inhibit growth of harmful bacteria like salmonella and e-coli.
What are pro and prebiotics?
While the term ‘probiotics’ refers to the beneficial bacteria themselves, ‘prebiotics’ are plant fibres that provide food for the bacteria to thrive. There are hundreds of strains of probiotic bacteria but some of the more thoroughly researched include members of the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria family, such as L. acidophilus, B. Bifidum, L. Casei and L. Rhamnosus. Each strain has slightly different properties and may be beneficial for different health concerns – either alone or in combination. A nutritional practitioner can advise on the best strain for your particular needs. One of the most common prebiotics taken alongside probiotics is FOS (fructo-oligosaccharides).
How to take probiotic supplements
Probiotics need to be taken correctly to maximise their effectiveness. Bacteria are destroyed by heat so should never be swallowed with hot drinks (it is fine to drink a hot drink afterwards). If probiotics are being used to counter antibiotic diarrhoea, try to leave a 2 hour gap between the two to avoid the probiotic being wiped out by the antibiotic. With regards food there is mixed opinion on whether to take probiotics with a meal or on an empty stomach. The acidic environment of the stomach is designed to destroy bacteria (good and bad) but probiotics need to get through unharmed if they are to reach the small intestine and flourish. An empty stomach will allow bacteria to pass through more quickly, however the stomach is at its most acidic during fasting. Food makes the stomach less acidic but taking probiotics with a heavy meal is not ideal as the bacteria will take longer to reach the intestine and may be damaged on route. Taking a supplement with a light meal is probably the best approach but it also depends on the specific strains of bacteria (some are more resistant to stomach acid than others) and the way a product has been encapsulated. Manufacturers will usually advise how best to take their particular product.
More is not necessarily better
Much of the literature suggests that around 10 billion viable cells a day are necessary for measurable benefits; however, some studies have seen excellent results at far lower levels and it seems the combination and particular ratio of different strains may be as important as the total numbers. While supplements may boast about high numbers, taking too much in one go can cause digestive upsets so the quantity should be built up gradually or taken in a divided dose across the day. Remember that no matter how many bacteria are in each capsule, they will have no benefit if they don’t survive the stomach acid, or survive but don’t flourish because they are not suited to the human environment. Reputable companies will be able to provide evidence to support the effectiveness of their formulation.
Dairy free options
Dairy is commonly used during manufacture as it provides an ideal medium for beneficial bacteria to grow, although non-dairy supplements are available for those with a known dairy allergy. Those who are lactose intolerant need not worry as bacteria break down lactose during the fermentation process, so in effect it is already digested by the time it is consumed. Kefir grains produce a rich source of probiotics when fermented on milk (goat’s milk is more easily digested than cow’s) but kefir can also be successfully made with alternatives like almond milk, coconut water or even plain water if dairy cannot be tolerated.
If you don’t fancy supplements, pre and probiotics can be found naturally in foods. Useful prebiotic foods include onions, garlic, leeks and Jerusalem artichoke. For probiotic bacteria fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut and kombucha deliver surprisingly rich sources. They are easy to make at home and therefore a very economical way to improve the microflora. Commercial foods, such as yogurt type drinks, are also available but can be expensive in relation to their potency and may contain added sugars, sweeteners and flavourings.
Whether you choose supplements or foods, there is no doubt that improving the composition of the gut microflora will benefit most people. To learn about the digestive system in more detail, consider undertaking a course in nutrition.