PROBIOTICS are live bacteria and yeasts promoted as having various health benefits – usually taken as a supplement or in a yoghurt drink. But are they just a big con and can they really boost health?
The average healthy adult has around 100 trillion bacteria living in their gut, but should people we really believe the experts who tell us we need to take supplements or eat certain foods to boost the levels even further or is this just another ploy to sell us something we don’t really need? Express.co.uk takes a look at the what probiotics really do.
Fermented foods like Kimichi, kerfir, kombucha tea and sauerkraut were one of the most popular food trends of last year.
Fermented foods are considered to be a superfood is because people believe they contain probiotic bacteria – ‘friendly’ bacteria which live in the gut.
“A growing body of research suggests that having the right balance of probiotic bacteria gut in the gut is important for health,” said Dr Arthur Ouwehand, Professor of Microbiology, and an expert in probiotics, from the University Of Turku, Finland.
However he said while foods like sauerkraut and kimchi contain live bacteria, he can’t be sure the bacteria they contain are probiotic bacteria – the right strain of bacteria to reach the gut.
What probiotic can do for you
The type and the number of bacteria that you have living in your gut is important – they can keep the digestive system healthy by preventing the growth of unfriendly bacteria, said Fiona Hunter, nutritionist.
She said: “The unfriendly bacteria has been linked to several health problems including food allergies, yeast infections, and inflammatory bowel disease.
“Studies also show that probotics help reduce the risk of respiratory tract infections like coughs and colds and can help to relieve some of the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
“Other emerging research suggests that altering the balance of bacteria in the gut can help reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome which is linked to increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and that your gut bacteria may also have an impact on your metabolic rate and weight.”
Do we really need probiotic supplements?
The balance of bacteria in the gut can be easily upset by a number of factors including stress, poor diet, illness and drugs such as antibiotics.
Dr Ouwehand said low carbohydrate diets can have a negative effect on our gut bacteria because they starve the bacteria of food which they need to thrive.
Research carried out at the University of Copenhagen found that almost a quarter of people in their study had 40 per cent fewer bacteria than are normally found in a healthy gut.
Rob Hobson, head of nutrition at Healthspan said: “For many people, diet alone cannot provide the right strain and level of live bacteria we need to maintain a healthy gut.”
emerging research suggests that altering the balance of bacteria in the gut can help reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome which is linked to increased risk of Type 2 diabetes
Taking the strain
People can boost the number of probiotic bacteria in the gut by eating food like yoghurt, drinks like Actimel or Yakut or by taking supplements.
Fiona Hunter said: “Although most yogurt contains live bacteria they are not necessarily probiotic bacteria because some of them will be deactivated during digestion.
“It’s important to choose a brand which says it contains probiotic cultures.
“There are many different strains of probiotic bacteria and each stain offers unique health benefits so a drink which contains just one type of probiotic bacteria may not offer the full range of health benefits, shot type drinks can also contain high levels of added sugar.”
It’s a numbers game
Probiotic supplements usually contain several different strains of bacteria, but the number of probiotic bacteria that a supplement delivers is also important.
Fiona Hunter said to be effective, people need to choose one which contains at least 10 million bacteria per serving.
SuperPro 50, a probiotic from Healthspan launched earlier this month contains over 50 billion bacteria from four different strains, including the bacteria Bifidobacterium lactis which are known to decline with age.
The supplements they are combined with calcium, vitamin D3 and B6 – designed to support digestive health, immunity and metabolism.
Fiona Hunter said: “Probiotic bacteria from food, drinks and supplements cannot live in the gut for ever so they need to be consumed on a regular basis.
“Taking supplements with a hot drink like tea or coffee, at the same time as hot food or with alcohol can kill the bacteria so they are rendered useless.”
Rob Hobson said the best time to take them is at breakfast, as this is when bacteria have the greatest chances of surviving the acidic conditions in the upper part of the gut.
Fiona said it is important to check the expiry date because once that’s passed there may not be any live bacteria left in the product.
“If you are taking antibiotics it’s a good idea to take a probiotic as well, but it’s important to wait a few hours after taking the antibiotic before you take the probiotic otherwise the probiotic will be deactivated,” she said.
Boosting friendly bacteria
Another good way of boosting levels of friendly bacteria in our gut is by eating foods rich in prebiotic fibre.
Prebiotics are a special type of fibre which stimulates the growth of the probiotic bacteria in the gut the clever thing is that prebiotics selectively stimulate the good bacteria.
Probiotic fibres are found in asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke, onions, garlic and leek and bananas.
What nutritionists call resistant starch found in foods like cold potatoes, cold pasta and barley will also have the same effect.