coloured pillsEveryone knows probiotics as the cute, little, blue blobs with adorable smiles on the Inner Health Plus TV ad.  But, what are they really?  Are they actually as cute in real life?

Probiotics are living bacteria that reside in your digestive system. I know the thought of bacteria in your gut can be tough to handle because we commonly associate bacteria with disease and infections! But don’t get these good guys confused with their infectious counterparts.  Probiotics are helpful bacteria that keep your gut healthy. If this doesn’t convince you, let’s break the word down.  The root meaning of probiotic comes from the Greek word ‘pro’ meaning ‘promoting’ and ‘biotic’ meaning ‘life’. So, in essence, probiotics are the good guys promoting good gut health for life!

We still don’t fully understand the role of probiotics in our health. Currently, researchers are still investigating potential positive benefits, not only for our gut, but also on other areas of health including diabetes, immunity, bone health and reproductive health.  What we do know, however, is that probiotics can help many gut complications including: constipation, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), enteritis, infectious diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating as well as urinary and vaginal health.

I like to think of probiotics as a big family.  There are the popular family members who everyone knows and there are other family members you don’t hear much about (except at big family events).

The popular family members, or the most researched probiotics are:

  • Lactobacillus: Naturally found in the small intestine.  Most commonly found in foods that have been fermented like yoghurt and some supplements.  Research has shown benefits in aiding anti-biotic-related diarrhea, infectious diarrhea, IBS diarrhea-predominate and yeast infections.
  • Bifidobacterium: Naturally found in your colon.  Again, commonly found in fermented foods like yoghurt and some supplements.  Research has linked these guys to improving IBS symptoms including pain, bloating, urgency and discomfort.

The other family members, who you sometimes hear about, but no one really knows what they get up to are:

  • Bacillus species
  • Streptoccocus species
  • Lactobacillus Casei species

In any family, there are certain family members you go to for help or advice for different things. One uncle can help you with your car troubles, but another cousin is better for relationship advice. You can do the same with probiotics. Each probiotic has a specific role depending on where they are located in the gut and their strain. Not all probiotics work the same, or live in the same place. This is the challenge when trying to decide what probiotic is right for you!

How should I take them?

So what is the best way to have probiotics – whole foods vs. supplements?

Supplements

Yes, a supplement is easy. And yes, sometimes it’s necessary for medical purposes, but probiotic supplements need to be handled with care.  Some important factors to note with supplementation are:

  1. You need to make sure they are refrigerated and in date.
  2. Probiotics can cause harm for some people. Always consult your medical practitioner!

One advantage of taking a probiotic supplement is that the capsule protects the probiotic through some of the digestion process. This means the bacteria can make its way to where it needs to be; in the intestines.

Whole Foods

On the other hand, you could reach for nutritious whole foods including:

  • yogurts with added probiotics,
  • cultured cheese,
  • kefir,
  • tempeh,
  • sourdough bread,
  • pickles,
  • dark chocolate.

Only a limited number of clinical trials have demonstrated that probiotics survive the acidity of the stomach. But don’t be disheartened! Research on brands including Activia, Valia and Yakult, have shown to beat the digestive process, and bacteria can make it through to where they are needed.

Regardless of which method you choose, my advice would be to find out which strain is best for you. You can do this by talking to your medical practitioner, or chat to a dietitian at The Healthy Eating Hub. Always check the label on any supplement you take to ensure it’s well within its used by date and the correct type for you.

What now?

The future of probiotics in gut health is certainly exciting! Current research is focused on understanding, in more detail, how probiotics work, how they interact and how we can best utilise them to promote health. Definitely watch this space!

Key points to remember:

  1. Not all probiotics are the same.
  2. Probiotics are believed to promote good gut health.
  3. Be informed – not all probiotic products survive the acidity of the stomach.
  4. Be excited about up-coming research – watch this space!

If you are taking, or thinking of taking a probiotic for gut health, we can help you choose the right probiotic and make sure your diet encourages the growth of good gut bacteria.

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