It’s not just our own body that is important in supporting our health. We have trillions of bacteria living inside us. In fact they outnumber our own body cells. And that must mean they are quite important, surely? Yes, it does. In fact, they are essential to health.
Having such a large community or other organisms living inside us might sound somewhat scary, but we have ‘symbiotic’ relationship with them. We’ve evolved together, and just like the animals we share our environment with, we depend on each other. The good bacteria, often called probiotic, or beneficial bacteria need a place to live, eat and reproduce, and in turn their metabolic activity supports our own health in multiple ways. In fact, we literally could not live without them.
The bacteria inside us forms a complex community and we don’t fully understand it yet. It is increasingly obvious that our gut bacteria are very individual. There are hundreds of species including Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium bifidum and Bifidobacterium lactis.
The benefits of probiotics
So what exactly do probiotics (live bacteria) do? Healthy levels of beneficial bacteria appear to be essential for the effective functioning of many of our activities:
- Defending us against harmful bacteria and other organisms
- Supporting our digestion and absorption
- Ensuring our immune system functions well
- Balancing our immune response so we are not inflamed or allergic
- Helping us excrete substances such as cholesterol or hormones
- Supporting our metabolism and cardiovascular health
- Supporting our nervous system including mood.
- Maintaining Balance
Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, they defend us against bad bacteria and support our digestion. They crowd out any bad bugs we can get exposed to in foods (for example through food poisoning, or when we go travelling) and even produce their own antibiotics to keep them in check. In doing so they create a state of balance that promotes good digestive health. Imbalanced gut bacteria may lead to conditions like irritable bowel syndrome or IBS, diarrhoea including travellers’ diarrhoea, and painful gut infections like gastroenteritis. A common diagnosis for many people with gut problems is SIBO or Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, where certain bacteria begin to proliferate in the small intestine creating IBS-like symptoms.
One major cause of imbalanced bacteria or ‘dysbiosis’ is use of antibiotics. Intended to kill bacteria when we have an infection, they act like disinfectants, killing the good bacteria too. So we lose our natural defence against the pathogenic bacteria and that may allow them to take over. The toxins that the bad bacteria produce then create the symptoms we experience such as pain, bloating or diarrhoea.
We can help to restore the balance with probiotics. In fact probiotics are essential when taking antibiotics and should be used as a matter of course. They will reduce gut symptoms and help to reduce the chance of the bad bugs becoming resistant to the antibiotic used. Probiotics like Lactobacillus acidophilus, and Bifidobacterium bifidum have been shown in many good research studies to restore the balance of bacteria during and after antibiotic use. They also reduce diarrhoea and antibiotic resistance. Probiotics have been shown to improve a range of symptoms in conditions like IBS and SIBO too, reducing pain, bloating and normalising bowel habits.
Probiotics also help us to digest and absorb our food properly. Just like when we use bacteria to produce foods like yoghurt or cheese, they are very metabolically active, producing enzymes to help break down proteins such as gluten, and, of course, lactose from milk, which they love to digest and turn to lactic acid. They ferment the foods in the bowel, feeding off the indigestible, prebiotic fibres, helping to keep the bowel moving and preventing constipation. They also create a lot of useful substances as part of their metabolism, such as B vitamins, including folic acid, and helpful acids like butyric acid and short chain fatty acids that help to fuel gut cells and keep them healthy. So probiotics are great for supporting poor digestion, such as gluten or lactose intolerance, and helping to keep our digestive tracts regular and healthy.
Probiotics also help to keep the immune system active. Most of the immune system is located in our gut as it’s the first point of contact for many invaders. The immune system here samples the environment and learns about it. In fact, good gut bacteria is essential in new born babies to program the immune system correctly to respond to its environment, learning what microbes or molecules are dangerous and need to be neutralised and which ones need to be ignored and tolerated. When this doesn’t develop very well or if we change it due to food poisoning or use of antibiotics, then we may have reduced immune function and not deal with infections as effectively. So we get more infections and struggle to shake them off. The gut bacteria help to keep the immune system on a low-level alert and therefore support its function. Several good studies have shown that certain probiotic bacteria help to prevent or reduce the effects of coughs and colds in children and adults, reducing number or infections, how long it lasts, the symptoms and the need for medications. In fact the single most important thing you can do to support your immunity this winter is to take a daily probiotic.
Probiotics don’t just improve the immune system though. They also help to stop it overreacting when it shouldn’t. In allergy or autoimmune conditions, the immune system reacts to substances from the environment that it should ordinarily ignore, creating symptoms of inflammation. The gut bacteria seem essential to programming our tolerance of everyday molecules like pollen or cat fur and preventing these extreme reactions. When babies do not develop their probiotic bacteria properly, they are more likely to develop an allergy. And giving certain probiotics to pregnant mothers and new born babies helps to reduce later allergies like eczema or asthma.
Probiotics also help to support our metabolism and we are starting to see evidence that gut bacteria might influence levels of obesity and development of harmful visceral fat. They also help us to eliminate cholesterol, supporting our heart health and sex hormones, helping us to stay in balance. They even seem to positively influence mood as they can produce serotonin (our ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter) and can communicate directly with the brain.
So our gut bacteria are certainly essential to our health and wellbeing and we are only at the start of an exciting journey learning how much. What we do know is that taking a good probiotic could help support us in a whole host of important ways from the outside in. Our gut bacteria are experienced in looking after us well. It’s time we started to make sure we look after them properly too.
Choosing a Probiotic Product
Not all probiotic products are equal, and there are a baffling number of choices. How do you choose one that is going to give you the best possible support? Choose a probiotic that is:
- Safe: make sure your probiotic contains human strains with an excellent safety record. Just remember, you are dosing yourself with live bacteria after all!
- Stable with guaranteed potency - live bacteria need to stay that way and get to where they need to be. You dint need specially coated capsules, just hardy bacteria with guaranteed potency at end of shelf life. Does it have to be chilled in a fridge? Not necessarily. There are some products that stay stable at room temperature and can be used for convenience, but the stronger products will tend to be in the fridge.
- Pure: choose a product free of unnecessary ingredients and allergens, especially one that is dairy free (which many probiotics are not).
- Symbiotic: that means with prebiotics like FOS or inulin to feed the good bacteria and increase its effectiveness.
- Flexible: make sure it’s in a convenient form to take, for example in a powder form for babies or children.
Most of all, make sure it’s going to work! The more strains, the better, surely? Definitely not! We can’t possibly replicate the diversity of bacteria in the human gut, so multi-strain products including lots of different bacteria may not be helpful at all. We can’t be sure how they work together and that we’re not just diluting the useful ones and wasting money.
Similarly having a really high number of bacteria may mean nothing if they are not the most effective types. What’s important is using exactly the right bacteria at the right level to make a real difference to health and that takes real expertise. So choose a probiotic that has been designed by experts and used by professionals, so you can be confident you will get results.
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