Probiotics are receiving a lot of air-time in the health, wellness, and medical communities at the moment; touted for seemingly endless benefits including digestive improvement and strengthened immunity. But why? Do you need to take one and, more importantly, is it OK to just grab any probiotic supplement off the shelf?
Starting with the gut…
It’s impossible to start a conversation about probiotics without first discussing the gut, or gastrointestinal tract (GIT), so let's keep it quick and simple:
Imagine a really long tube that starts with your mouth and ends with your bum (stick with me!), which is exposed to everything that goes through your body. Not just what you eat and drink, but the air you breathe as well. Now, think about what you ate/drank/breathed in yesterday: most of us love a little indulgence here and there (myself included: hello, choc-mint choc top!) so here’s some key factors that I can think of: I went for a run along a busy road so I couldn’t help but breathe in car exhaust fumes and pollution; I ate a relatively healthy breakfast and lunch jam-packed with lots of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre etc., then my choc top was kind of dinner (oops!) which, unfortunately, is full of refined sugars, unhealthy fats etc. So my GIT yesterday had some good, and some bad – probably much the same as yours.
The chief role of the GIT is digestion and absorption of nutrients to meet demands for growth and development. However the GIT also functions as a barrier against toxins and foreign substances from microorganisms and foods, as such it is a kind of ‘first line of defence’ for the body.
The GIT is also a key player within the immune system and, in a nutshell, the function of the immune system located within the GIT is largely dependent upon the establishment of a diverse microbiome.
To be clear, science is really still scratching the surface in regards to the microbial colonisation of the human gastrointestinal tract, or the microbiome. The microbiome consists of the 10-100 trillion microbial cells harboured by every one of us, and ‘Microbiome Projects’ are underway worldwide with the specific task of understanding the roles that these bacterium play in human health.
We know the microbiome is incredibly important (there are roughly as many bacteria within the body as there are cells!), but new research is being uncovered all the time about how we might best apply strategies to enrich and optimise our microorganism population. One of the ways we might like to do so is via the use of probiotics.
The World Health Organisation suggests that probiotics are “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit to the host”. Probiotics are generally introduced into the diet either through fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and yoghurt; otherwise they’re taken as probiotic supplements: capsules/powders/tablets that contain freeze-dried bacteria. The microorganisms usually found in such products are lactobacilli and bifidobacteria.
So you're telling me bacteria are healthy?
Yes sir-ee! If you learn one thing from this article, let it be this: as with all things in life, the key to bacterial/microbial health, is balance. We are home to, and indeed require, both beneficial and potentially harmful bacteria. In a well-functioning GIT, the beneficial bacteria will keep the harmful bacteria in check. Put very simply: illness tends to occur when we lose the balance.
How do probiotics work?
Firstly, when we put probiotics into the body, either through foods or supplements, they tend to compete with harmful bacteria for spots to take up residence in the GIT, especially in the intestines.
By improving the balance between beneficial and harmful microorganisms, the lining of the intestines is strengthened, keeping toxins and allergens out of the blood stream and reducing the frequency of reactions to things like pollens and food.
Further, it is thought that probiotics can stimulate the immune response of the body, both by increasing naturally-occurring immune factors within the GIT, as well as improving the numbers and distribution of specific cells of the immune system.
Do I need to take one? They’re kind of expensive…
There are certainly many things you can include in your diet and lifestyle that are beneficial to the balance of the microbiome that don’t involve taking a probiotic supplement. For example, there is certainly a lot of value (in my opinion) in including good quality, fermented foods as a regular part of your diet to improve microbial diversity.
The addition of a probiotic supplement might be warranted for additional support should you be experiencing any of the following:
Constipation/diarrhoea (including that which is associated with travelling);
Diarrhoea associated with antibiotics or other medications;
Repeat bouts of viral infections such as the common cold, UTI, sinusitis, tonsillitis etc.
How can I get the best bang for my probiotic-buck?
If you’ve decided to take a probiotic, make sure you’re feeding the beneficial bacteria properly:
Reduce your intake of refined, sugary foods; alcohol and coffee. These things tend to favour/feed the harmful bacteria, over the beneficial ones.
Include plenty of prebiotic foods in the diet. Prebiotic foods help by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria. Prebiotic foods are high in dietary fibre and onion, garlic, leek, asparagus and bananas are particularly good sources.
Seek a professional opinion...
The best way to get value for money, however, is to speak to someone who knows what they’re talking about for your individual needs. There are certain strains of probiotics that have been clinically trialed, tested, and proven to be beneficial for certain health conditions.
If you’ve decided that taking a probiotic is for you, invest wisely by speaking to a naturopath who is up to date with the science, and can advise you properly. A good quality probiotic is not a cheap supplement and the dose, timing, and length of administration will differ depending on your health circumstances and individual needs. Further, it is likely that taking a probiotic will only address part of your health picture and is by no means a 'cure all'. Having a thorough assessment of your diet and lifestyle is the best way to ensure that you're receiving comprehensive treatment.
What we currently know about the benefits of probiotics really comes down to the immune system:
Probiotics help to ensure that the cells lining the GIT are healthy. Strong and healthy cells improve the way that the body keeps harmful elements of foods and the environment (i.e. toxins and allergens) out of the bloodstream.
Probiotics stimulate the immune system to improve its production and distribution of key cells that contribute to the body’s defensive mechanisms, such as natural killer cells, macrophages, and T cells.
Taking dietary supplements is not the answer for everyone and each person has different needs. If you’re going to spend money on your health, invest it confidently by seeking professional advice first. If you require any more information, please don't hesitate to email me here.
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Sender, R., Fuchs, S. & Milo, R. (2016). Revised estimates for the number of human bacterial cells in the body. PLOS Biology http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/036103
Schrezenmeir, J, & Vrese, M. (2001). Probiotics, prebiotics, and synbiotics - approaching a definition. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 73(Suppl), 361S-4S.
Ursell, L., Metcalf, J., Wegener-Parfrey, L. & Knight, R. (2012). Defining the human microbiome. Nutr Rev, 70(Suppl. 1), S38-S44.