Your gut plays host to an army of live, friendly bacteria, known as gut flora or microbiota. These bacteria are vital for a healthy digestive system and are called probiotics. The saying goes that an army marches on its stomach, and the probiotics in your gut are no exception. They need to be fed and nourished, and this is where prebiotics come in.
Probiotics and Prebiotics Explained
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Both probiotics and prebiotics (gut microbiota) arrive in your intestines from the digestion of various types of food, or from dietary supplements. Their presence is desirable to assist a great variety of health-giving functions.
What is a Probiotic?
Probiotics are introduced into the gut when you eat foods containing live cultures, such as certain natural, unsweetened yogurts (the type you need will be labelled as containing live cultures). Various fermented foods are also a rich source of probiotics.
What is a Prebiotic?
Prebiotics are foods of a fibrous nature that feed the gut microbiota and enable it to survive and multiply. The food groups that contain prebiotics are fibrous fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
It is important to include in your diet enough of both kinds of food to sustain a balance between probiotics and prebiotics.
Why Do We Need Gut Microbiota?
Firstly, good bacteria in your gut gives you protection against the onslaught of harmful bacteria and fungi that regularly invade your digestive tracts.
We now have the benefit of relatively recent Scientific studies into gut bacteria which prove that a plentiful variety of gut microbiota gives significant help in fighting infection, boosting the immune system, helping to ease symptoms of depression, and even supporting the body in the fight against obesity. In addition, certain strains of gut bacteria form vitamin K, and this helps with blood coagulation, bone metabolism and the regulation of cell growth.
One of the other important functions performed by friendly gut bacteria is to create short-chain fatty acids. These acids support the cells that line the colon and provide a barrier to keep out harmful viruses and bacteria. They also ease inflammation which could otherwise develop into serious diseases, and this includes the risk of cancer.
Gut Health – What Helps and What Harms?
Your food choices make all the difference to the health of your digestive system, and therefore to your health generally. This sounds obvious but probing a little further reveals some surprises.
If your diet regularly contains too much sugar and fat, then you are unwittingly feeding the wrong kind of bacteria. Instead of nourishing the friendly flora in your digestive tract, you are helping the undesirable bacteria to propagate, thrive and set up colonies in your gut. Medical science has now discovered that this disruption of gut microbiota is responsible for predisposing you to very serious diseases such as cancer, insulin resistance (leading to diabetes), heart disease and disorders of the central nervous system.
If you regularly include in your diet too many unhealthy food choices it causes the wrong bacteria to multiply and flourish, and this prevents friendly bacteria from blocking the imposters. There is always a mixture of good and bad bacteria in your gut, but if the beneficial bacteria are strongly nourished, they can fend off the undesirable bacteria. Now research has found that these colonies of harmful bacteria, once they get a hold, can lead to a higher body mass index and dangerous levels of obesity, which in turn leaves you vulnerable to various diseases.
Studies have found that the taking of antibiotic medication can cause negative changes to gut bacteria, especially when used to excess in childhood. Scientists are studying how this may impact on health in later life.
Foods Treated with Pesticides
It has been established that eating food crops that have been treated with pesticides may cause inflammation of the epithelium (lining) of the gut due to the disruption of gut bacteria. This could lead to a lowering of the immune system’s ability to fight infection, a higher risk of colorectal cancers and reproductive issues. Toxins from chemical sprays are a good reason to avoid consuming large quantities of basic foods that have been treated in this way and opt for organically grown and reared staples such as bread, cereals, vegetables, and meat.
Certain foods are naturally rich in beneficial bacteria. Plain yogurt that contains live cultures is one that is easy to include in your diet. If you are vegan, it is possible to find plant-based yogurt alternatives that have the appropriate live cultures added.
When checking food labels for good bacteria, you need to look for:
- Lactobacillus bifidus
A number of the most useful probiotic foods have not always been easy to find in the UK, but they are now widely available. Fermented foods are the most probiotic rich:
- A Korean fermented vegetable dish, delicious when added to cooked lentils and mung beans along with onions and spices to make a dahl. It is often eaten with roast pork or chicken and is also great on a beefburger or hotdog.
- A traditional German vegetable that goes well with cold or cooked meats or as an addition to vegetable dishes. It is often traditionally eaten with cold sausage but is a good addition to many vegetable dishes.
- Fermented pickled vegetables
- Ensure when buying fermented pickles that they have not been pasteurised. Fermented pickles will usually be stored in the chiller cabinets of health food shops or supermarkets, and these are the best ones to buy as those in bottles and cans will have had much of their probiotic quality removed by the high heat needed for preserving.
- A sparkling, fermented and sweetened tea drink. It is available from health food shops, may be ordered online, or you could make your own using black or green tea and a fermentation culture known as a SCOBY, together with fruits of your choice. Here’s how to make kombucha.
- A cultured and fermented drink made from goat’s milk. It also has the addition of a living grain known as the kefir grain which carries a combination of beneficial gut bacteria and yeast. Kefir was first made by the people who inhabited the area of Russia around the Black Caucasus Mountains thousands of years ago. It was noticed by the Russian government of the times that the folk from this area were living longer and healthier lives than the populations of other parts of Russia. The people of that area guarded their kefir strongly, but the government sent an armed party into the mountains to bring back large quantities of the kefir grain. All genuine kefir around today is from those original grains.
- The scientist Elie Metchnikoff in 1908, nicknamed ‘The Father of Natural Immunity’, won a Nobel prize for his work with kefir. A more up to date innovation took place in 2017 when Dr Michael Mosely conducted NHS human trials with kefir as part of his BBC2 TV show ‘Trust Me, I’m a Doctor.’ The study had 30 volunteers in three groups who either drank a probiotic drink, drank a fermented drink, or ate prebiotic food. After four weeks the study concluded that kefir had the most powerful benefits for gut health of all probiotic foods available today.
Many vegetables, legumes and fruits contain the kind of fibre that acts as a prebiotic. Our digestive system is not able to digest the fibrous matter in these food groups but the beneficial bacteria in our gut can digest them perfectly well.
special mention here for foods that contain a substance called inulin. Inulin is a soluble vegetable fibre that cannot be digested other than by the good bacteria in the gut. It passes through the digestive tract in a gel-like consistency which mops up cholesterol and other fats as it goes.
Inulin is a great help in diminishing stores of visceral (internal) fats that wrap around our major organs. When inulin reaches the colon, it provides an excellent food for the gut microbiota as well, so inulin is a super prebiotic. Foods that contain inulin are:
Much larger amounts of inulin are to be found in the roots of the chicory plant and in Jerusalem artichokes. It is from these two vegetables that inulin is usually harvested for supplement and food manufacturing purposes. Read more about inulin.
Examples of other foods rich in prebiotic fibre are:
The way that it works is that the fibre in these foods is converted by good gut bacteria to a short-chain fatty acid known as butyrate. Studies have found that butyrate cannot be kept in the colon without a regular supply of prebiotic fibre.
Some foods are said to be synbiotic because they contain both pro and prebiotics. As well as being rich in beneficial bacteria, they also contain a prebiotic type of fibre for the bacteria to feed on. Examples of symbiotic foods are cheese, kefir and sauerkraut.
Probiotics in Supplement Form
There may be times when you are not able to get enough probiotic and prebiotic foods from your diet alone. Such times as following illness, particularly gastric upsets, or if you have had to take a course of antibiotic medication, your levels of beneficial bacteria will almost certainly have taken a bashing, leaving you vulnerable to the invasive bad bacteria thriving and colonising in your gut. This is a good time to help yourself by boosting your probiotic levels with a supplement from a reliable and trusted source.
A high-quality probiotic supplement that has been expertly devised and blended. Probiotic Gold contains various strains of bacteria, as each strain has a different effect, and 20 billion colony forming units (cfu):
- Lactobacillus acidophilus
- Bifidobacterium animalis lactis
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus
- Bifidobacterium bifidum
- Bifidobacterium longum
- Streptococcus thermophilus
It is important to ensure you are taking in enough fibrous food as well as probiotic choices, otherwise the good bacteria will have nothing to feed on and they will not survive. It may be necessary to also take a prebiotic in supplement form.
A superb prebiotic in supplement form is Baobab Powder. Derived from the fruit of the baobab tree in Senegal. The supplement contains only the naturally harvested goodness of the baobab fruit, and this delivers a powerful cocktail of nutrients and vitamins and fibre to help your gut bacteria thrive. It has a pleasant, citrussy flavour and can be added to yogurt, juice, water or blended into a smoothy.
Baobab is 50% fibre, and it is the soluble fibre that helps the slow release of sugars in the blood, so is particularly good for diabetics. The soluble fibre also helps to rid the bloodstream of cholesterol. Baobab absorbs water so gives a feeling of fullness thereby helping to control appetite. Read more about baobab.
Another excellent addition to your diet, and a powerful prebiotic, is inulin powder. Our inulin is harvested from chicory root and can be sprinkled into soup, or mixed with juice, yogurt, smoothies or with plain water if preferred. We recommend that you increase the amount of water you drink when taking inulin.
To keep your digestive system healthy, eat a wide variety of both prebiotic and probiotic foods to keep your friendly gut bacteria balanced. If you have been ill or taking medication you most probably need to replenish your stores of beneficial bacteria, or if you feel you may be struggling to eat enough of the necessary foods, you may wish to consider taking probiotics as a supplement.
Apart from discussing the issue with your GP, you could also consult The World Gastroenterology Organisation’s Global Guidelines list of evidence-based conditions that probiotics can help. This may prove to be a useful reference point in assessing the likelihood of needing to supplement your diet with probiotics.
When it comes to keeping you informed on health and nutrition, we’re here for you and aim to always be a source of science-backed information.
If you would like to discuss any aspect of using natural supplements, or would find advice helpful, please feel free to contact us on 01297 553932.