Everything from tea to the time you take them could affect whether you actually benefit from a probiotic. Here’s how to ensure you’re actually getting the good bacteria…

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If you’re popping a probiotic supplement , you’re not alone- according to the BBC, we spend around £750 million on probiotics every year in the UK. This is quite the investment in beneficial live bacteria, particularly given the fact that said health-boosting microbes often require sensitive treatment, otherwise they’re unlikely to be beneficial, or um, alive. To minimise the risks of wasting your cash, or possibly taking probiotics when you shouldn’t be, here are some probiotic pitfalls to be wary of.

You’re not buying enough bacteria

If your probiotic supplement is coming up short, you’re unlikely to reap any potential health rewards. Nutritional therapist and ambassador for water-based probiotic  Symprove Eve Kalinik  lays down the probiotic law:

“You should generally look for multiple strains and a decent amount of bacteria- around 10 billion CFU (colony forming units). Also check that the brand has the right backing, with independent research and studies, and that the company can answer any questions that you may have. I can verify that Symprove really know their stuff (the brand has recently been acclaimed in studies conducted by UCL School of Pharmacy and King’s College Hospital).”

Bacteria to look out for includes bifidobacterium and lactobacillus, of which the latter is particularly associated with the treatment of diarrhea- evidence indicates that taking this strain of probiotic could improve recovery prognosis for stomach bugs, although more research is required. The general consensus is, the more bacteria strains, the better.

You’re not storing them correctly

Check that you’re giving your probiotics a good home. Eve dishes out some common sense advice:

“Different probiotics require different storage methods. Some need to be refrigerated whereas others can happily sit at room temperature so just check when you buy. Shelf life will also differ depending on the brand too.”

Registered nutritionist  Rob Hobson  explains why shelf life is such a key consideration:

“Once the expiry date is passed, quite simply there’s unlikely to be any live bacteria left in the product.”

No indication of shelf life on your probiotics? View them with suspicion and opt for a brand that can guarantee live bacteria.

You’re taking them at the wrong time

Again, reading the packaging is vital, but there’s growing consensus that the early bird catches the bacterial worm, so to speak. Eve weighs in:

“Some probiotics can be taken with food, but it depends on the type of probiotic you’re using. Many are better taken on an empty stomach so usually first thing in the morning would be the ideal time."

Rob seconds the early shift:

“Research suggests that breakfast might be the best time of day as this is when bacteria have the greatest chances of surviving the acidic conditions in the upper part of the gut.”

You just may not want to put the kettle on at the same time…

You’re not taking them regularly

A bit of a no-brainer, but Rob reminds us that consistency pays off.

“To make a real impact on the diversity of your microbiome you need is to take probiotics regularly to get the most benefit, as you are essentially trying to increase the amount in the gut.”

You’re having a cuppa with your supplement

Throwing hot water on your probiotics is a no-no according to Rob:

“Don’t take a probiotic supplement with hot food and drinks such as tea or coffee as this can lessen the chance of the bacteria getting to your gut unharmed. Give it 30 minutes after taking them before you reach for the teapot.”

Which brings us to the next beverage/probiotic partnership to avoid…

You’re chasing your probiotic with wine

If you’re taking yours at breakfast time we’d obviously hope that this wasn’t the case, but if you’re in the routine of having an evening probiotic alongside a G&T or similar, Rob suggests rethinking that:

“Alcohol can render the bacteria in probiotic supplements useless so avoid knocking back with a glass of pinot!”

In fact using any kind of tipple as a vehicle for a health supplement is probably a bit wrong, but just in case you were in any doubt, stick to water.

You’re sugar coating them

Those little yogurt pots could be delivering more sweet stuff than actual strains of gut-loving bacteria. It’s safe to say that doing shots doesn’t always pay off, as Rob explains:

“Sources of probiotic yoghurt and drinks do contain beneficial strains but these are often not in as greater volume as a supplement, or with as much variety. You also need to be aware of the high sugar content of certain probiotic foods, as some brands of ‘shot’ drinks have been shown to contain as much as 2 tsp of sugar.”

That old chestnut of checking the label still applies.

You’re taking antibiotics

You may have been advised to take a course of probiotics to restore healthy natural bacteria in your gut after taking antibiotics, but be mindful of when you pop your probiotic to avoid frittering away funds and helpful bacteria. Eve has the ground rules:

“Always take your probiotics separately from antibiotics, as antibiotics essentially kill off most of the beneficial bacteria. Probiotics are unlikely to reduce the efficacy of the antibiotic-  the issue is more that you would be wasting your probiotic, so just take them at different times, ideally at either end of the day.”

Timing wise, it’s also important not to get too hasty in terms of probiotic expectations…

You’re expecting miracles

If a probiotic supplement works for you, it will likely take time to show its hand. Eve gives us a rough timeline:

“Everyone’s gut is different. Some people notice immediate changes and for others it takes a bit more time. Generally speaking, the current estimate is around six weeks to notice positive shifts when you start a probiotic programme. That said, the science is relatively new on probiotics, so you would do well to make sure you do your research before investing. SYMPROVE has completed the relevant trials and has the results to show their efficacy, hence why I use them in my own practice.”

Symprove , based on an extract of germinated barley, has four varieties of probiotic bacteria added, and unlike freeze-dried probiotic alternatives, the bacteria is active so can colonise in the gut without triggering digestion, so get to work quicker and more effectively, as proved in an independent study published in the Beneficial Microbes Journal by Professor Simon Gaisford of UCL School of Pharmacy.

That’s not to say that freeze-dried probiotic supplements aren’t effective at all - Rob recommends Healthspan Super50 Pro  (£28.50 for 6 capsules). Just make sure that whether you’re purchasing your probiotics in capsule, tablet, liquid or powder form, they are corroborated by independent research, clear labelling as above and ideally recommended by a doctor, dietitian or registered nutrition professional.

You’re immunosuppressed

The European Food Safety Authority  has banned advertisers from claiming that probiotic supplements can “boost your immune system”, and if you’re in any doubt at all regarding your immune system, always seek medical advice regarding probiotics, as Eve stresses:

“While probiotics are generally safe for most people, if you have a compromised immune system or are undergoing any significant treatment or medication then you should always check before adding in ANY supplement, including probiotics.”

If you are taking a probiotic and experiencing symptoms such as headaches, bloating or excess gas, it’s almost definitely not the one, so stop, stat.

You’re relying on supplements

The right probiotic can restore bacterial balance to your digestive system, but as always, there’s no magic bullet, as Eve emphasises:

“It’s not just about supplementing: we need to get beneficial bacteria from food sources as well. The gut loves diversity, so the more varied your intake of beneficial bacteria, the better. Fermented foods provide probiotics naturally, and these include sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha , unpasteurised cheese, kefir and miso. Add these in alongside your probiotic supplement, not least because they taste great!”

The UK diet typically isn’t abundant in probiotic rich foods, but taking in a few fermented additions could remove the need for supplementation altogether, as Rob confirms:

“Probiotics are intended to be used in a therapeutic context as they help to deliver a beneficial dose of bacteria to the gut, and while there is likely no harm in taking them daily, if you have a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet then there may be no need to invest in a probiotic."

Bolstering your bacteria could even be as simple as cracking onto the carbs- we’ll let Rob second that:

“Interestingly, the trend for carbohydrate-free diets could have an impact on the diversity of bacteria in your gut. A high fat and protein diet is not necessarily the issue as bacteria will find something to live on in the gut, but the diversity of bacteria and their activity may change in the absence of carbohydrates. Like us, bacteria prefer to live on carbohydrates (glucose) and from this they produce short chain fatty acids that are good for your gut. Once carbohydrates are taken out of the diet, bacteria start to thrive on amino acids that make up proteins, which produces other compounds that are considered more harmful than beneficial."

One to mull over while enjoying a sauerkraut  bun perhaps?

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Follow Anna on Twitter  @AnnaMaryHunter , Eve  @EveKalinik  and Rob  @RHNutrition