Science has moved on dramatically over the last 30 years and it is still moving. It has become well recognised that the health of the gut has an impact on all aspects of human health including digestion, mental health and immunity. When we look at the health of the “gut” we are mainly interested in the health of the microbiome; all 40 trillion microbes and their genes!
The interest then turns to what we need to do to keep this community of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses happy and healthy. Well, Probiotics are without a doubt a very powerful part of gut health, but by no means the only part.
The term Probiotic is derived from the Greek meaning; “for life”
The full definition is;
“live microorganisms which when consumed in adequate amounts
confer a health benefit to the host”.
So, you can see by their definition they are beneficial.
Probiotics are sold in 3 main formats, these being capsules, powder, and liquid form. Each product will list the name of the Probiotics included and how many cultures are present; don’t be surprised to see a count in the millions or billions.
As an example, a well-known Probiotic drink contains Lactobacillus Casei. This is shortened to L. Casei. Lactobacillus is the genus (like a family name) Casei is the species. In some cases, a strain code is added. E.g. Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM.
Probiotics should have been tested to ensure they can survive the harsh environment of the stomach and reach the gut as well as having some research to show they benefit our health. Probiotic products often contain other added ingredients, so always take a little time to look at the ingredient listing.
Many people assume that Probiotics reach the gut and stay there, adding to the existing bacteria and therefore improving the microbiome. With trillions of bacteria present in our gut, taking Probiotics is like adding a thimble full of water to an ocean.
Probiotics work in many ways, but I like the analogy that they are like tourists who come and stay for a couple of weeks, boosting the local economy and then leave. They have been shown to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress and they can also reduce pathogenic bacteria and modulate the immune system. These are just a few ways in which these ‘tourists’ help!
Conditions and Symptoms They Help
Here are some examples of positive outcomes with Probiotics;
- they can help to modulate bowel motions, both for constipation and diarrhoea
- they can improve the immune system by improving resilience to coughs and colds
- they can help with acne, eczema, vaginal and urinary tract infections
- and the list goes on
Specific Probiotics have been found to be particularly beneficial for certain conditions and in particular, Probiotics that have been researched for help with mental health have been named Psychobiotics, find out more here http://psychobiotic-revolution.com/
Psychobiotics are defined as;
“live bacteria that, when ingested in appropriate amounts, might confer a mental health benefit.”
Examples of Psychobiotics are Lactobacillus Plantarum for Anxiety and Depression as well as Streptococcus Thermophilus, also for depression.
At this point, there seems to be no magic pill for weight loss, despite correlations between low Akkermansia muciniphila levels and obesity. There have been some positive trials and also, some negative trials – so perhaps we still haven’t found the right Probiotic or perhaps other interventions will always be needed.
It’s always important to remember that each condition will have its own set of research, not always conclusive, but often enough to guide the use of a particular product.
The microbes present in many fermented foods are often the Probiotics that have been studied. By consuming fermented foods, you not only will benefit from those microbes, but also from the other nutrients associated with the foods. The fermentation process itself has advantages such as making the nutrients more accessible by partially digesting them, hence why fermented foods are seen as super beneficial.
For example, yogurt generally contains the following bacteria Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, and has been associated with good health as far back as 6000BC. Recall that we have already mentioned S. Thermophilus in conjunction with depression. Yogurt has been studied itself showing the benefits of the whole product. When studying yogurt, a large cohort study showed it to have a protective effect on weight gain. Yogurt may also protect against heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
You may have heard of Kimchi, which has a predominant strain, Lactobacillus Plantarum, again mentioned above for use for anxiety, it is a very well-researched bacteria. Each batch of Kimchi will contain a different set of microbes depending on the individual recipe and environment. It is also now thought that the Probiotic content is comparable with supplements. Kimchi’s benefits will also come from its ingredients, which are cabbage, red peppers, garlic and ginger. Again, research on Kimchi as a whole showed that eating 300g a day has shown a significant help in reducing body weight.
So, as you can see, Probiotics don’t only come in supplement form, they can be consumed simply by eating these fermented foods.
It’s worth putting a WARNING here before I send you off to eat 300g of kimchi a day;
If you are not used to eating fermented foods, take it easy
Add them into your diet gradually, starting with small amounts, perhaps just a teaspoon. If you rush into this, side effects such as bloating and flatulence or indeed any type of digestive complaint can occur and this is the very complaint you’re hoping to resolve; it may take time for your gut to start thanking you. Do consider that It could in fact be that you are reacting to an ingredient either in the ferment or in a Probiotic supplement.
Also be aware that if you are immune compromised, for example having chemotherapy, you may be advised not to take Probiotics, so always check with your doctor/consultant.
In conclusion, using Probiotics every day can be part of optimising and maintaining gut health and remember that Probiotics can be consumed using fermented foods.
There are many other considerations when looking to optimise gut health, however, Probiotics have a huge potential to support not only our gut health, but many aspects of our overall health.
As I said, it’s not just Probiotics that will benefit your gut health. My takeaway message to you is to include the following 3 things to keep those gut bugs happy;
- Fibre (increase slowly)
- Phytonutrients (colourful vegetables & fruit etc. 30+ plant foods a week)
- live/fermented foods (miso, yogurt, fermented vegetables)
There is just a vast amount of research on Probiotics as supplement companies look to market their products. I listened to an update this week that reviewed 9 research papers from this year on Probiotics. The point was made that although supplement Probiotics are used in research, Probiotic foods would have the same benefits that are seen with supplements.
I won’t expand on the details of the research but just to show the breadth of conditions that Probiotics benefit I’ll list the topics of research that were covered:
Increase in anti-oxidant capacity, asthma, seasonal allergy, diarrhoea in children, infant jaundice, viral respiratory infections, constipation, and H.Pylori a bacteria associated with stomach infection leading to ulcers.
Much of the research discussed was Meta-analysis – these are studies that look at data from many trials, 17 in one case. Not all individual trials show benefits from Probiotic use which is why reviews and meta-analyses are useful as well as understanding the specifics of duration and timing for best outcomes.
My takeaways from this:
- benefit from Probiotics in healthy individuals
- the specific strain of Probiotic doesn’t always matter – using a mixed blend including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria species is often shown to be beneficial in research
- duration can be important to see improvement (2 months in the case of chronic constipation)
- use of Probiotics with antibiotics can be beneficial in reducing side effects and getting better clearance of the pathogen
- these benefits could all apply to the use of Probiotic foods
- Pschobiotic revolution: Mood, food and new science of the gut-brain connection by Scott Anderson
- Sayon-Orea C, Martínez-González MA, Ruiz-Canela M, Bes-Rastrollo M. Associations between Yogurt Consumption and Weight Gain and Risk of Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome: A Systematic Review. Adv Nutr. 2017 Jan 17;8(1):146S-154S. doi: 10.3945/an.115.011536. PMID: 28096138; PMCID: PMC5227971.
- Pod cast and references for more research section https://drruscio.com/probiotic-proof-oxidative-stress/
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