our bowels do much more than just transporting waste that’s flushed away down the toilet pan; they are also home to a staggering five hundred million bacteria. Some of these are good for us and some are downright bad and research suggests that achieving a healthy balance between these is crucial to maintaining optimum health and wellbeing (1).
Probiotics are not some new-fangled discovery. For thousands of years and across continents, societies have survived and thrived on probiotics in foods that have been cultured and fermented to preserve them. Today, our modern lives mean we eat much smaller amounts of fermented food, so we need to give the friendly bacteria a boost to stay fit, feel well and protect our bodies against disease.
What are probiotics?
Probiotic is another name for the hundreds of different “good bacteria” that line the gut. They act to maintain healthy digestion and break down the fibre in our food-but their influence extends far beyond the bowels.
Probiotics keep the bad bacteria as well as any yeast and fungi under control. They have an important role in helping the body absorb micronutrients such as vitamins A, D and E, essential minerals like calcium, iron and chromium and in producing vitamins including B12, folic acid and vitamin K. They also fight infection, boost your immune system, protect against disease and keep your skin looking lovely. So, you can give both your bowels and your overall health a boost by working probiotics into your daily diet.
Where do they come from?
From the moment we left the safety of the womb and prepared to enter the world, probiotics have been an important part of our system (2). They are introduced when we are first exposed to our mother’s bacteria in the birth canal and beyond, and they continue to develop and grow as we breast feed, take a bottle and move onto solids. This bacterial colonisation of the bowel is thought to have a crucial role in inducing immunity in babies and protecting them in future life.
The right balance
Maintaining a healthy balance between the good and bad bacteria is one of the keys to digestive health and much, much more! Gastro-intestinal experts believe that the balance of gut flora should be around 85% good bacteria and only 15% of the bad stuff. Lower levels of probiotics can make our bowels a giant petri dish, allowing bad bacteria, yeasts, fungal infections and parasites to grow and multiply. Unfortunately our modern lifestyles and diets can attack the healthy bacteria, leaving our guts depleted and our bodies vulnerable.
Stress, medications, antibiotics in the food chain, too many carbs and dietary grains and even chemicals in the water we drink can all attack the healthy gut flora. To tip the scales back in a healthy direction, we need to cut out the foods that feed bad bacteria and to eat more foods rich in probiotics or start to take supplements regularly.
Is diet enough?
You can get the probiotics your body needs from your diet, but it’s going to take more than just meat and two veg. The foods that are rich in healthy bacteria may not appear on your average weekly shopping list.
Refrigeration and better food availability may actually be bad for our bowels; in years gone by, people used fermentation and culturing to preserve food for the lean winter months. These foods were rich in probiotics, so our gut flora would have regularly been given a dietary boost.
Now most of us are desperately in need of a bacterial top up. Try to add these foods to your diet for a little probiotic punch, or consider a supplement if you find you simply can’t stomach kimchi or sauerkraut.
Yoghurt: live cultured or Greek yoghurt is probably the most popular probiotic food in the UK and the USA. It can be a wholesome and delightful way to boost your healthy bacteria. However, the vast selection of brands, flavours and varieties of yoghurts on the supermarket shelves can make it tricky to tell a healthy probiotic from a sweet treat.
When picking your yoghurt, look for organic products made from the milk of grass fed goats, sheep or cows. Varieties with higher fat and lower sugar and flavourings tend to be more satisfying and less processed, you can add sweetness and nutrients with fresh fruit, nuts and honey.
Kefir: Kefir is a fermented dairy product, a little like yogurt. The name means ‘feeling good’ and this tart, creamy concoction contains as many as thirty-four probiotic strains. All of the lactose in the milk has been broken down during the production process, so kefir can be enjoyed by people who are lactose intolerant too.
Sauerkraut: A German national dish made from fermented cabbage and other veggies. Sauerkraut is rich in natural lactic acid bacteria such as lactobacillus and also contains lots of organic acids, which support the growth of good bacteria, so there’s double the benefit.
Raw Cheese: Quality cheeses made from raw, unpasteurized milk from cows (ideally A2), goats and sheep are high in a number of probiotics and their high fat level and low acidity protects the bacteria as they pass through the GI tract. Cheddar, feta, Gouda, Edam, Emmental and Gruyere can all be good examples, however it’s important to pick produce that is labeled organic and unpasteurized. Make sure you stay away from these if you are pregnant or immunosuppressed, as it could put you at risk of listeria infection.
Kimchi: Kimchi is sauerkraut’s cultured Korean cousin. It is made with Chinese cabbage combined with other veg and spices like garlic, onions, ginger and radishes. The mixture is seasoned with sea salt and fish sauce and left to ferment for as long as two weeks before it’s ready to store or enjoy.
Coconut Kefir: Fermented coconut juice can make a delicious, dairy-free kefir. It isn’t quite as rich in healthy bacteria as the traditional version but it can be a great alternative and makes a refreshing drink with a little honey and lime-juice.
Miso: Miso has been an important part of Chinese and Japanese diets since the year 0. It is made from fermented soybeans together with a grain like rice or barley and then made into a dark, buttery paste.
When mixed with some boiled water and noodles, veggies or seaweed to your taste it makes a low-calorie, intensely savoury soup that satisfies, stimulates the digestion and tops up those probiotics. Small wonder that most Japanese people enjoy miso for breakfast every day.
Natto: Natto is another popular Japanese dish harnessing the probiotics from fermented soybeans. Natto contains a powerful probiotic, bacillus subtilis, which boosts the immune system and seems to protect against cardiovascular disease (3)
Ginger beer: If those foods all seem to be too much of an acquired taste for your liking then you can get your probiotic boost the same way as the Famous Five did, with lashings of ginger beer. But to get the benefit it’s no good swilling the stuff from a can, you’ll need to make your own. It’s a little work but the results are definitely worth it for your palate and your health (4).
Because of the problems with getting enough of the healthy bacteria we need in our modern diets, many fortified yoghurt drinks and supplements are available as a no-hassle way of keeping the friendly flora topped up and helping us harness the many health benefits(5).
The secret to restoring and maintaining the health of your gastrointestinal system may be all about balancing your gut bacteria. Researchers have investigated the effects of probiotics on a number of digestive disorders and noticed significant benefits.
Probiotics can kill or decrease the growth of harmful bacteria in the bowel, preventing them releasing toxic chemicals that can make you unwell, this can be help prevent and treat diarrhoea caused by antibiotics, including the life-threatening superbug c. difficile (6) as well as fighting infectious diarrhoea(7). Supplements may also ease the flatulence, pain and discomfort of irritable bowel syndrome. (8)
Many have people have found significant benefit taking probiotics in the management of the inflammatory bowel diseases Crohn’s and Ulcerative colitis. The evidence here is less clear-cut and more research is necessary. However studies do confirm that if a part of the bowel has been removed, resulting in unpleasant inflammation in the leftover pouch, probiotic enriched drinks can soothe symptoms and provide welcome relief (9).
Probiotics for the Immune System
As well as fighting the superbug C difficile, probiotics stimulate the secretion of immune enhancing IgA (immuno globulin A) which is an antibody tht plays a critical role in immune function in the mucous membranes. It also stimulates secretion of T Cells (white blood cells). A 2014 study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, found that athletes who supplemented with probiotics suffered 40% fewer colds and gastro intestinal infections (10).
Also a 2014 meta analysis study in the British Journal of Nutrition that reviewed 20 clinical studies looking a the effect of probiotics on immunity ‘the average duration of respiratory illness episodes, the number of days of illness per person and the number of days absent from day care/work/school are significantly reduced with probiotic treatment compared with placebo’ (11).
Probiotics for lactose intolerance
If you’re unable to digest lactose, the sugar found in dairy produce, you may get relief from probiotics and in particular from lactobacillus acidophilus. Supplements may help ease stomach cramps, flatulence and diarrhoea. So cut out dairy and add in a probiotic supplement or some kefir to boost the levels of good bacteria (12).
Probiotics for your skin
Probiotics in the gut can create a barrier that reduces inflammation, which is a key trigger to some skin conditions. Taken orally, or sometimes applied topically, the healthy bacteria improved symptoms in acne, rosacea and eczema, early studies suggest that it may even help to hold back the ravage of time and improve fine lines and wrinkles, and every little helps! (13).
Fighting allergies and eczema
Some babies are born atopic; it’s an allergic tendency that runs in families making them more prone to eczema, hay-fever and asthma. But there may be a way of preventing and protecting against symptoms. There is some research evidence that early use of probiotics in babies may help protect young children from allergies and particularly eczema in the early years (14).
Protecting the Premature
There is good research evidence that probiotics can help protect babies who are born too soon. Some very low birth weight infants are at risk of a condition called necrotizing enterocolitis, in which the bowel becomes inflamed and starts to die. A review of the studies confirmed that probiotics can prevent necrotizing enterocolitis and death in vulnerable babies under 1.5kg (15).
Healthy Teeth and Gums
Are you paranoid about bad breath? Well, instead of popping mints you may be better off taking some friendly bacteria. Evidence is mounting to suggest that probiotics could be useful in preventing and treating oral infections, including dental cavities, gum disease and halitosis (16).
Combating the common cold
Streaming nose, tickly cough and feeling generally rough and grumpy, we’re all too familiar with the common cold. A cold isn’t dangerous or debilitating but it can be downright miserable. Early studies looking at the effects of probiotics suggested that they may have an effect on preventing a cold getting a grip, so worth considering as part of your winter anti-viral armoury (17).
And there’s more…
The impact of probiotics may well extend even further, new studies are looking at the effect of probiotics on treating liver disease, managing autism, preventing kidney stones, fighting stomach ulcers, combating infant colic, battling cancer and new groundbreaking research may indicate that managing our gut flora may even make us thinner. An imbalance in the gut bacteria has also been shown to have an effect on mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, in fact 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced by our good gut bacteria.