Probiotics are strains of ‘friendly’ bacteria deemed beneficial to our health. With the current excitement around our gut bacteria and its affect on our health there has been a constant stream of studies and suggestions into the causes, benefits and potential cures posed by various “friendly’ bacteria. Unsurprisingly these beneficial bacteria or probiotics have themselves become championed and publicised for their health benefits. We’re informed daily about how yogurts, milkshakes and even granola bars are good for us because of the probiotics they contain.
How much of this is hype?
In order to fully understand the role of probiotics, we first need to consider the100 trillion+ bacteria & organisms our gut hosts and the vital role these organisms play in our health. These bacteria are both good and bad in nature but bad bacteria will be largely be outnumbered and suppressed in a normal healthy a person, while their behaviour can even be controlled and influenced by the make up of beneficial or friendly bacteria. These bad bacteria or pathogens only thrive when this equilibrium is upset – whether by, for example – a poor diet high in sugar, starch and low in fibre – or by the consumption of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and exposure to toxic chemicals all of which kill off bacteria and as a result upset the diversity and balance of an ecosystem more complex than the rainforest.
A resulting lack of gut bacterial diversity has been linked with a whole range of ‘modern’ diseases from irritable bowel disease, asthma and allergies, to autoimmune disease, mental health disorders and obesity. Essentially, the health of the gut has a direct influence on the health of a human being and so in theory – if we can replenish the valuable ‘friendly’ bacteria that we need to for a healthy gut then we may be able to treat some of these diseases.
So do probiotics really work?
There continues to be much research in this area – with many inconclusive studies for the treatment of variety conditions – but it is generally accepted that the right probiotic bacteria when administered in the sufficient quantities can help with improve the diversity, stability and overall health of the gut bacteria and our bodies.
However simply planting ‘a few seeds’ of these friendly bacteria into one’s diet through some supermarket health products or supplements will not provide much benefit alone, as the types, quantities and diversity of bacteria is key – as is the way in which the bacteria is contained and consumed – or else the acidity of our stomach will kill them off before they can even reach our gut.
And most of all the diet and lifestyle of the individual is crucial – without the right diet and living conditions these desirable strains of bacteria will simply be unable to establish themselves and colonise – and will quickly die off.
It is therefore crucial that for probiotics to be beneficial – they must contain the right strains, quantities and diversity, combined with a healthy balanced diet.
Which probiotic is right for me?
Different probiotic foods and supplements all contain different strains of these friendly bacteria and so will affects the gut in different ways. Without an understanding which bacteria you lack or what it is that you require to improve your health and wellness taking supplements is guesswork. Further more many probiotics are being sold today, only a minority have been tested to see what beneficial effects they have on the health of the body.
However Probiotics can also be consumed naturally through probiotic-rich fermented foods such as Kefir, kimchi, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut, whole-fat organic yogurt, grass-fed yogurt or even unsweetened sheep’s milk or goat’s milk – all of which have been around for thousands of years with well documented health benefits.
So while this is still an area requiring further research to be fully understood scientists are in agreement that if administered correctly, probiotics are relatively safe and can be used to treat a wide variety of problems from improving the immune health of premature babies to Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
It is important to keep in mind however that probiotics are not the means to an end but one component of a process to improve gut health along with other measures such as:
- A balanced diet; rich in nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables and low in sugar, refined starches and dairy – which can contribute to the growth of bad bacteria and limit the ability for friendly bacteria to colonise.
- Avoiding Antibiotics, toxic chemicals and anti-inflammatories where ever possible as these will kill off the bacteria and result in reduced diversity and gut health even months after you have finished using them.
- Take Probiotics: whether through natural fermented foods or recommended supplements; which will help improve gut health and consequently even issues with depression, skin, autoimmune conditions.
- Take Prebiotics: which are essentially fibrous foods that feed the probiotic gut bacteria and include onions, garlic, resistance starch, wallnuts, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, dandelion greens, and jicama to name a few.
While these are all steps you can take yourself, if you suffer from inflammation, infections. bowel disorders or chronic diseases you may want to talk to your doctor about treatments to consider and specialized testing to understand the make up of your gut bacteria and to determine exactly what strands of bacteria you lack or require.