Nowadays it can seem that many people’s supplemental arsenals are sometimes surplus to requirements, with an array of different pills and vitamins available to ‘fix’ a wealth of health or wellness concerns. An at times overwhelming choice, which ones are actually worth investing in? One thing that many nutritional experts agree on is that the far-reaching benefits of probiotics make it a strong contender for one that everyone should consider taking, no matter their age or sex.
Thanks to a popular ad campaign for a well-known probiotic drink, we’re sure you’re all aware of ‘friendly bacteria’ - our cohorts in ensuring a healthier gut. However, call us suspicious, but why exactly are they so amiable and why should we trust their good-natured dispositions so much? To put our reservations to rest, we caught up with nutritionist, author and broadcaster Amanda Hamilton aka ‘Mrs Nutrition,’ to find out the whats, whys and hows of probiotics, the best probiotic foods, supplements and what we should be looking for in choosing one in order to better understand their motives...here’s what we found out.
GTG: What are probiotics?
AH: Probiotics describes strains of beneficial bacteria that are commonly supplemented to support activity that takes place in the gut. The fact is our guts are teeming with more than one billion bacteria - or microbiota - way more cells than are in your body.
Our gut bacteria play a role in the manufacture of substances like neurotransmitters (including serotonin); enzymes and vitamins - notably Bs and K - and other essential nutrients including important amino acid and short-chain fatty acids. Around 70% of the body’s defences are in the gut, which is constantly under siege from microbes that enter our system via food and drink. The various species of “good” bacteria are your body’s first line of defence and thus a key component of a healthy immune system. In other words, they are vital to us.
GTG: What are the main differences between probiotics and prebiotics?
AH: Prebiotics are like a fertiliser for the beneficial bacteria while the probiotics are the strains of beneficial bacteria themselves. Prebiotics can be in the form of certain foods - asparagus and leek are some of your microbiota favourites - and specialist fibre substances such as inulin.
GTG: What are the benefits of supplemental probiotics?
AH: The impact of a healthy gut is body wide. Think of it as a restoration project of your inner grand design which holds the key to health.
GTG: What are the best ways to incorporate probiotics into our diets?
AH: In a perfect world, we would all naturally consume lots of raw fresh plant-based food. Indeed, we’d not just consume it, we’d gather it, as being out in nature helps our bacteria population too. Given that the only hunter-gathering most of us will ever do is round the aisles in Waitrose, we need a bit of help!
Dairy products typically have the most probiotics - choose a yogurt labelled “live and active cultures,” or even better, try kefir, a fermented milk drink or cultured coconut based drink. Probiotics are also found in pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi (a spicy Korean condiment), tempeh and miso.
However, live organisms can have a limited shelf life, so people should use probiotics before their expiration dates to maximise the potential benefits. It’s easy to understand why supplements are often the most practical option!
GTG: What should people look for when choosing a probiotic?
AH: Potency is king. Labels on supplements should specify the strain and microbe counts which are the number of live organisms in a single dose. You are looking for billions not millions. Compare one pot or pack against the other and always choose a reputable brand.
GTG: When and how should you take probiotics in order to maximise their efficacy?
AH: Follow package directions for instructions on proper dosage, frequency and storage as this is often specific to the supplement type. Some people advise to open up supplement capsules and sprinkle the contents into milk. I prefer to be practical and avoid the back of the cupboard syndrome or even better use a daily strip. A routine of taking the tablet at the end of the day can work well.
GTG: Realistically, what can we expect results-wise from taking probiotics?
AH: According to Tom MacDonald, professor of immunology at The London School of Medicine: “Aside from eating a balanced diet and reducing your alcohol intake, I think probiotics are the only immune-booster with real scientific grounding.” However, the impact you’ll feel depends entirely on the state you are in beforehand - and how well you support the supplements with lifestyle change. On the menu should be items that are low in sugar, including alcohol, or refined carbohydrates as sugar feeds the bad bacteria in the gut.
Lots of clients in my clinic report improvement in symptoms of bloating, gas, more regular bowel movements and even improvement in skin conditions that are linked with poor digestive health. Changes in immune function are harder to measure but the evidence is really strong.
GTG: Is there such a thing as a one-size-fits-all probiotic or can you tailor it to suit your individual needs?
AH: Much like your genes, your microbiota population, or your microbiome, is unique to you. As such, cutting edge research and trials are being done to see about certain strains being isolated and individually given - but, it’s unlikely ever to be a reality for consumers in the near future. It’s much better to choose a supplement that contains a good level of beneficial bacteria and modify your diet to support your digestive health alongside.