PROBIOTICS : Your Gut’s Good Friend
Maintaining a healthy gut will have a beneficial impact on our health beyond the digestive system.
What is gut health?
Gut health, in recent years, has been increasingly recognised as an important condition for overall good health. It creates a state of effective digestion and absorption of food, resulting in gastrointestinal well-being and an absence of digestive illness.
Major gastrointestinal diseases, such as inflammation or cancers, can be serious and potentially life-threatening, but even less critical functional problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome, can have a big impact on your quality of life as they can result in bothersome symptoms such as abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhoea.
Interestingly, a healthy gut also has an impact on our health beyond the digestive system. The lining of our intestine forms an immense gut barrier that prevents the leakage of undigested food particles, toxins, waste and bacteria into the blood stream. It therefore regulates our immune and allergy functions in general, and a breakdown in this can lead to problems as far ranging as skin eczema, arthritis and autoimmune disease. Our gut also communicates with the brain to modulate mood and energy metabolism, and may be an important causative factor in obesity and fatty liver disease.
How do we maintain gut health?
One of the most important components of the gut barrier is our gastrointestinal microbiome. This consists of some 1014 living bacteria that colonize our gut, especially in the large intestine. It forms a complex ecological community of microorganisms that help support the digestion of fibres and other nutrients. It also regulates the gut immune system and other defence mechanisms that prevent an invasion by harmful organisms.
Anything that affects our gastrointestinal microbiota
and gut barrier can lead to bad gut health. Medication, especially antibiotics, can severely affect the diversity and abundance of the bacterial flora that lives in our gut. Even an unbalanced diet, such as a carbohydrate-rich foods or a high fat diet, can affect our gut defence system and allow infections, inflammation, allergy and other diseases to set in.
It is important to support and maintain good gut health before the system breaks down. Take a healthy, balanced diet that includes high vegetable and fibre content. Avoid excessive red meat, alcohol and tobacco. Improve your lifestyle with regular exercise and meditative methods to reduce stress. Ensure a regular intake of probiotics and prebiotics to help support good gut health. Prebiotics are healthy plant fibres that feed our microbiota. Some supplements called synbiotics contain a combination of probiotics and prebiotics.
Do I need probiotics?
Everyone should have a daily dose of probiotics. Intake of probiotic containing foods may be sufficient if you have a relatively healthy gut. Lactobacillus (useful for diarrhoea and lactose intolerance) can be found in fermented foods such as yoghurt and sauerkraut. Bifidobacterium (useful in irritable bowel syndrome) can be found in dairy products.
Alternatively, you may choose to take a health maintenance dose of probiotic supplements such as 10 to 15 billion colony forming units (CFUs) daily. The strength of probiotic supplements is measured in CFUs. A higher dose may be needed if you have an acute digestive problem or if you have a gut that is weak and frequently symptomatic. For instance, therapy of infective diarrhoea may require a dose of 50 billion CFUs daily.
Which probiotic should I choose?
The variety and type of bacteria present in the probiotic supplement is far more important than the number. Instead of just one or two strains, a good probiotic should contain a diversity of ideally three to six different types with synergy between the strains. For doctors treating certain medical condition, we may require a particular strain of probiotic to target a specific therapeutic action.
The important strains you should look for are: Lactobacillus acidophilus (colonises the small intestine to support nutrient absorption and digestion of dairy), Bifidobacterium longum (integrity of the gut wall and scavenger of toxins) and Bifidobacterium bifidum (digestion of dairy, complex carbohydrates, fat, and protein). For travelers diarrhoea, Lactobacillus rhamnosus seems to be the more effective strain. Lactobacillus casei complements the growth of L. acidophilus, bifidobacterium infantis is one of the more common friendly strains while lactococcus lactis is the first genetically-modified organism to be used alive for the treatment of human disease.
You should always select a probiotic with live bacteria. The quality of the manufacturing process determines how likely the bacteria remains alive when you consume it. The product may come as a powder sachet or a capsule. Do not break open the capsule as this is protecting the live bacteria in its journey past the stomachs harsh environment. Avoid products that require refrigeration as you cannot be sure of the integrity of this cold chain before it reached you.
Look for the expiration date on the packaging. A short expiry simply means the probiotic has been on the shelves a long time and may be half dead. Read the instructions for use. Some probiotics are best consumed in between meals and others with your meal to help protect against the stomachs acid environment.