There's a lot of hype around probiotics, Rob Hobson explains why we need them
It feels like everyone is talking about friendly bacteria right now with new research findings hitting the press on a regular basis and speculation around probiotic supplements being the focus of primetime TV health shows. The average human adult provides a home to around 100 trillion bacteria so why are experts recommending we get more microbes through food and supplements? Is it necessary or is it just another marketing ploy to sell us something we don’t really need?
What can probiotics do for you?
The body is full of bugs that make up one of the most complex ecosystems in the world with over 400 different species living in the gut. Generally, these bugs are not harmful and many have a beneficial role to play in the body. Bacteria feed on fibre that we get from foods such as wholegrains, vegetables and nuts in the diet. These fibres are fermented by bacteria that produce short chain fatty acids, which are the main source of energy for cells lining the colon and have been shown to have many health benefits in their own right.
Gut bacteria are essential in the process of breaking down food to extract nutrients that are required for our survival. Bacteria help to synthesize certain vitamins including B12, folic acid and thiamine that are required for energy metabolism, red blood cell production and maintaining a healthy nervous system. These clever microbes also teach our immune systems to recognize foreign invaders and produce anti-inflammatory compounds that fight off disease-causing bacteria.
Rob Hobson explains more about probiotics in the video below and makes a delicious pre and probiotic chickpea salad
Click HERE for Rob Hobson's Chickpea Salad recipe
Nurturing your own culture club
The community of bacteria in your gut is specific to you and is referred to as your microbiome. The diversity of your microbiome is especially important to help maintain a healthy gut as bad bacteria are limited and tightly controlled by the good variety. If your diet is unhealthy and rich in sugary or processed foods then there’s a chance that the good bacteria in your gut will become weakened, impacting on health as you provide an all-you-can-eat buffet for bad bugs to thrive on and take over. A build-up of bad bacteria may result in a number of health problems such as food allergies, yeast infections or inflammatory bowel disease.
You can add friendly bacteria into your gut by taking supplements or eating foods such as probiotic yoghurt. Fermented foods are very trendy right now and are often touted as being probiotics but to be called this there must be an associated heath benefit linked to the strains in the food. As the strains in many fermented foods are not very widely researched, so the health benefit relating to the bacteria is not clear enough to warrant being called a probiotic. This doesn’t mean they will not make a healthy addition to the diet or maintain good gut health but just exactly how much is not fully understood.
The use of probiotic supplements have been strongly associated with helping to maintain a healthy gut, reducing the incidence and length of coughs and colds, boosting immunity and helping with diarrhoea associated with gastrointestinal viruses or antibiotic use. In these cases, probiotic foods are unlikely to provide you with the number of bacteria required to have an effect so a supplement is better advised.
Choose the right strains of bacteria
The most researched strains of bacteria are those from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium families, which have been linked to the health benefits associated with probiotics. You will find these strains in probiotic yoghurt and shot-type drinks but make sure you check the label as these can be high in sugar. Many of these foods contain just a single strain so may not harness the health benefit you’re expecting, unlike a probiotic supplement containing multiple strains.
Ageing and the microbiota
Ageing has many effects on the body including the absorption of key nutrients and this extends to the diversity of your microbiota. Bacterial strains such as Bifidobacterium Lactis have been shown to decline in later life and this reduced diversity of bacteria could open the pathway for disease-causing pathogens. As you age it may be particularly beneficial to invest in a good quality probiotic supplement as part of your health regime.
What to look out for when choosing a probiotic supplement
- Alongside a healthy diet that includes prebiotic foods, probiotic supplements can be a useful way to top the gut up with friendly bacteria but there are some things you should keep in mind when choosing and taking your supplements.
- To be effective you need to choose a supplement that contains at least 10 million bacteria per serving.
- Probiotic bacteria from supplements cannot live in the gut for ever, so they need to be consumed on a regular basis.
- Don’t take a probiotic supplement with hot food and drinks like tea or coffee as this can lessen the chance of the bacteria getting to your gut unharmed.
- Alcohol can also render the bacteria in probiotic supplements useless so try not to knock back with a glass of pinot!
- Research suggests that breakfast might be the best time of day as this is when bacteria have the greatest chances of surviving the acidic conditions in the upper part of the gut.
- Make sure you check the expiry date because once that’s passed there may not be any live bacteria left in the product.
- The use of antibiotics also wipes out bacteria from the gut and is not fussy whether that bacterium is good or bad. If you’re taking a course of antibiotics, then take a probiotic alongside your medication and for a few weeks after to help rebalance your microbiome (try not to take your antibiotic and probiotic at the same time).
Choose a probiotic supplement with a range of well researched strains such as Healthspan Super50 Pro 60 capsules £28.95
Rob Hobson is a Registered Nutritionist and Healthspan Head of Nutrition
This article is sponsored by Healthspan