Probiotics and your belly health

The notion of consuming millions of bacteria to boost health may be hard to swallow. That’s because we tend to associate bacteria with illness but overlook the benefits.

Our guts are teeming with many strains (good, bad and neutral) and getting the balance right could hold the key to long life, according to a new US study.

That’s where probiotics come in. Also known as “friendly bacteria” they are living micro-organisms which have health benefits. It is claimed probiotics can boost the immune system, improve the absorption of nutrients and aid digestion.

“I regard probiotics as fortifying your defences against something nasty that’s lurking around the corner,” says Professor Glenn Gibson at the Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences at Reading University. “The gut houses 70 per cent of your immune system, making it hugely important for health. I believe everyone should routinely take probiotics.”

WHERE DO WE GET PROBIOTICS?

They are found naturally in small amounts in fermented foods such as live (bio) yogurts and cheeses, sauerkraut, miso soup and sourdough bread.

In some nations, probiotics have been consumed for thousands of years in the form of soured milk. Scientists first discovered their benefits by studying villagers in part of Bulgaria who were living unusually long lives. It was discovered they were consuming a fermented yogurt drink daily.

Thankfully there are now more palatable solutions in the form of so-called functional food.

Probiotics can be added to milk, yogurt, cheese, fruit drinks and chocolate. You can also buy probiotics supplements, capsules, drinks and yogurt shots which contain large amounts of friendly bacteria.

There are many brands from which to choose, including Yakult, Multibionta and Actimel, while supermarket own brands can also be effective. When you’re buying probiotics look on labels for very high numbers of active or live organisms. The more the better but aim for at least 10 million.

HOW CAN PROBIOTICS HELP?

Most of the favourable research on probiotics focuses on their ability to ease gastro-intestinal complaints, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and colitis.

But it’s claimed they may have much wider benefits by protecting against more serious conditions including bowel cancer by acting on poisonous chemicals in the gut.




Probiotics may also be a barrier against food poisoning. “Research has shown that taking probiotics can help shorten a bout of traveller’s diarrhoea, as well as colds and flu and other common bugs,” says Professor Gibson.

Some studies suggest probiotics can also improve skin conditions, including acne and eczema.

It’s also claimed that taking probiotics makes you feel less hungry so they could be a weapon in the battle against obesity. One study found that people who regularly took probiotics enjoyed a better mood.

Probiotics may also help those who are taking antibiotics, research shows, by replacing good bacteria which are indiscriminately killed off by the drugs. They may also help reduce tooth decay by keeping harmful bacteria in check.

HOW OFTEN SHOULD I TAKE PROBIOTICS?

Supporters of probiotics say they are best regarded as a sort of health insurance and should be taken every day. That way there’s a better chance of the bacteria in your gut being permanently well-balanced. If you’re generally healthy, once you start taking probiotics you probably won’t notice much difference but they are working in the background.

“Probiotics have an effect pretty quickly, probably after only a couple of days,” says Professor Gibson. “They should be part of our everyday lives.”

If you’re not taking probiotics regularly they can be used as a quick fix for a tummy upset.

Probiotics
Probiotics

WHAT’S THE ARGUMENT AGAINST PROBIOTICS?

Some experts believe the health benefits of probiotics have been over-stated. They say there’s no need for healthy people to worry about gut bacteria and point out claims that probiotics boost the immune system are unproven.

We can boost our gut health in a different way by eating lots of fruit and vegetables. Also probiotics don’t undergo the same rigorous testing and approval process as medicines.

This means you don’t know whether a probiotic yoghurt, supplement or tablet contains what is stated on the label, or whether the amount of good bacteria contained is enough to have a beneficial effect.

Because the make-up of everyone’s gut is different, with a unique mix of millions of bacteria, probiotics will not always have the same impact.

A diet that’s very high in red meat may lessen the impact of probiotics.

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WHAT ABOUT PREBIOTICS?

Prebiotics act as fuel for probiotics and occur naturally in many foods. Garlic, onions, chicory, asparagus, bananas and leeks are all good sources. However for an effective dose you may need to obtain your prebiotics from functional foods, including some breakfast cereals, supplements or capsules.

Prebiotics also come in powdered form so can be sprinkled on food, or added to recipes or baked products.

Some experts believe prebiotics are more effective than probiotics because they encourage lots of different types of bacteria in the gut. Others say a cocktail of probiotics and prebiotics is best.

ARE PROBIOTICS AND PREBIOTICS SAFE?

There’s wide agreement that unless you are severely ill both pose no risks and have no unpleasant side effects. In short taking them won’t do any harm.

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