We now know that probiotics can hold the secret to better gut health, but which ones should you focus on? Here’s a short probiotic shopping list...

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Nomadic shepherds have been drinking them for centuries and the ancient Egyptians quaffed them by way of fermented drinks, but we’re just on the cusp of realising what probiotics can do for our overall health. With a name derived from the Latin and Greek term “for life”, probiotics have been used in the treatment of diarrhea and digestive issues for decades, but scientific research indicates that boosting our levels of healthy probiotic bacteria by way of probiotic foods or supplements could help to not only show bad bacteria the back door, but improve how our bodies function overall.

Given that we have more bacteria within our guts than skin cells in our body, it makes sense that fostering the good guys creates a healthier overall environment, as Chris Newbold, Head of Clinical Nutrition at BioCare , explains :

“Having such a large community or other organisms living inside us might sound somewhat scary, but we have ‘symbiotic’ relationship with them. We’ve evolved together, and just like the animals we share our environment with, we depend on each other. The good bacteria, often called probiotic, or beneficial bacteria need a place to live, eat and reproduce, and in turn their metabolic activity supports our own health in multiple ways, from defending us against harmful bacteria to helping us to absorb key nutrients from our diets and supporting our digestion."

Speaking of digestion, considering that most people in the UK get less than 50 per cent of the recommended daily intake of fibre , most of us could probably do with a leg up in the gut health department, particularly since our gut is often dubbed our “second brain” for its regulation of everything from hormone excretion to nervous system function and even mood. Add in the fact that many of us are up against good bacteria blasting infections, antibiotics and IBS (1 in 10 of us in the UK suffer with IBS symptoms ), and the importance of probiotics becomes even more patent.

Popping just any old pill isn’t necessarily the answer to a happy gut bacteria community, however, as alongside including fermented and probiotic rich foods in your diet such as kefir , live yogurt, kimchi, miso, kombucha  and sauerkraut, certain bacterial strains have particular superpowers in the probiotic realm. Here are three caped probiotic crusaders to look out for, and what they bring to the table in terms of defending your system and making your microbiome  a better place. Why there’s not yet a big budget Marvel superhero series in the pipeline, we haven’t got the foggiest.

Lactobacillus acidophilus

This latinate stomach settler has good research behind it in terms of keeping gut bacteria in check during and after antibiotic use, and it’s the most scientifically researched probiotic out there. Discovered in the 1890s, its digestive benefits when taken for at least four weeks were first identified by Nobel prize winner Llya Metchnikoff and include reducing the severity and symptoms of diarrhea, constipation and IBS in particular, while more recent research suggests that it could be particularly helpful to take if you have problems digesting lactose- it can reduce the stomach cramping and loose stools associated with lactose intolerance. Always welcome.

Bifidobacterium bifidum

The most common probiotic bacteria found in your body, this one is found naturally in breast milk as well as your gut. We’re not suggesting you seek out actual breast milk- a supplement will do to give your immunity a fighting chance and also keep your vagina healthy- bifidobacterium bifidum is particularly renowned for its capacity to take the edge off of yeast infections. Another key bacteria for helping to minimise a bad bacteria coup by way of antibiotics, it’s also thought to help reduce the inflammatory processes involved in eczema  and asthma, although more research is required in this area. Chris emphasises that probiotic supplements and foods are generally considered safe for people of all ages to take, although those with compromised immune function should seek advice from a doctor before taking supplements just in case. Otherwise, give them a month to kick in to see if they reduce symptoms.

Bifidobacterium lactis

This probiotic packs a particular punch in terms of improving immune system response and reducing the severity of allergic reactions. Clearly it should never replace medication, but microbiome studies show positive responses for decreasing bouts of flu and fever, and even reducing gluten sensitivity in coeliac patients, although again, that’s not an invitation to face plant the nearest bread basket if you are indeed gluten intolerant- at present it’s a probiotic ray of hope for improving digestive health for sufferers. It’s also been shown to reduce bloating , and studies indicate that it shows promise for reducing incidences of skin infections such as dermatitis  and decreasing the likelihood of contracting a respiratory infection.

Where to find them

Bifidobacteria and lactobacillus acidophilus are derived from lactic acid bacteria, and fermented dairy products such as yogurt or cheese are good sources of these probiotics. If you’re lactose intolerant, you may wonder how you can tolerate bifidobacteria, however, these probiotics help you to digest lactose by breaking it down when it hits your system. This is the reason that many people who are lactose intolerant have issues digesting milk but don’t experience symptoms such as cramping and diarrhoea after eating yogurt. If in doubt, take a supplement to get your fill, but look out for the following when supplement shopping to ensure you’re not wasting your money:

Make sure bacteria are alive

Kind of a basic criterion you might think, but you’d be surprised at how many probiotic supplements aren’t actually that potent once they’ve hit the shelves or been stored at home, and  taking your probiotics alongside hot drinks, alcohol or heaps of sugar could negate their positive effects . Check whether your probiotics need to be stored in the fridge, take them well within their ‘use by’ date and go for a brand with proven safety and formulation records, whether in liquid, capsule, pill or powder form. Looking out for a probiotic supplement with an added prebiotic such as inulin or Fructooligosaccharides (could be labelled as F.O.S) could help to safeguard precious healthy bacteria too, as probiotics feed on prebiotics. Basically, we’re trying to establish a flourishing wholesome bacteria food chain here, so make sure that the probiotics you’re taking have a cushy environment in which to work and grow.

Dodge additives and allergens

Read supplement labels with scrutiny and check that there’s no added weirdo bulking agents or allergens (dairy derivatives are common and can be troublesome if you have problems digesting dairy products).

Less can occasionally be more

You’ll often see bacteria listed by the billion on probiotic supplements, and while this is no bad thing (remember the old skin cells to bacteria ratio), more strains doesn’t always mean a better supplement. A targeted supplement with key probiotics in the right numbers rather than a scattergun approach of multiple but weaker strains could be more helpful for general health, as we know how well certain strains can work together (see the dream team above). Dosing is key to getting the most out of any supplement, as is independent research verifying the effectiveness of the products you’re shelling out for.

If a bacterial cocktail of three extensively studied probiotic microbes appeals, BioCare Everyday BioAcidophilus , £13.96 for 28 capsules, ticks all of these boxes and is suitable for vegans, vegetarians and pregnant women. They also don’t need to be refrigerated, meaning you’re probably more likely to remember to take them and colonise that healthy bacteria camp.

Written in partnership with BioCare. For more information see  biocare.co.uk .  Buy Everyday BioAcidophilus, £13.96, online here .