Probiotic is the generic name for various strains of living bacteria which are beneficial to the human digestive tract. For probiotic supplements to have any potential benefits, they need to survive digestion (meaning they need to survive exposure to stomach acid) and reach the intestine alive.
Evidence suggests the average healthy person does not need to take a probiotic supplement to have a healthy gut. However, there are certain scenarios where a probiotic supplement can be beneficial, for example; after taking antibiotics or preventing travellers’ diarrhoea. On the flipside, there are also scenarios i.e. irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) where a probiotic supplement can make symptoms worse.
There is a big gap in our understanding of probiotic supplementation and the evidence supporting their use is still emerging. There are hundreds of different types of probiotic strains and each strain can potentially do different things. If you are looking to take a probiotic supplement, it is important you use the exact type of probiotic that was used in a clinical trial to have shown benefit. It is best you speak to your doctor or dietitian about what is right for you.
Wherever possible, I would use food first as the research still has a long way to go in terms of probiotic supplementation. There are lots of food sources of good bacteria such as kefir (fermented milk), kombucha (fermented tea), sauerkraut, kimchi, yoghurt and miso. These all contain live micro-organisms and our ancestors have included these in their diet for a very long time and associated them with lots of health benefits. I try to include some of these foods in my diet as often as possible. We make our own kombucha at home and it is much tastier and cheaper than anything you can buy. There are lots of easy to follow instructions on how to make kombucha online.
And then there are prebiotics…
This can be confusing as supplements may say they contain both probiotics and prebiotics. Prebiotics are the food for the good bacteria. They are certain types of dietary fibre as well as some polyphenols (micronutrients found in plant-based foods). Some great sources of prebiotics are legumes, onions, garlic, mushrooms, bananas, oats, flaxseeds and asparagus. If you are eating a wide variety of fruit and veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, you will be getting plenty of prebiotics in your diet.
How amazing is it to think that these tiny little microorganisms could have such a big impact on our overall wellbeing. I’m pretty geeky but I find this stuff so fascinating 🙂
If you are interested in probiotic research, the US probiotic guide (http://www.usprobioticguide.com/) is a great website. It lists the probiotic studies and the strains that have shown benefit as well as the dose and length of time they were taken for.