Everything You Need To Know About Probiotics!

If you’ve ever picked up a bottle of probiotics and found yourself muttering “what even are probiotics, and how could I possibly need billions of them?” you’re not alone.

But we here at Healtheries know a few things about probiotics! So settle in and we’ll answer your need-to-know questions (plus a few you didn’t know to ask). Don’t worry, when we’re through you’ll know your probiotics from your prebiotics!

First up, just what exactly are Probiotics?

The word “probiotic” literally means “for life”. But the term usually refers to the living beneficial bacteria in supplements or some enriched foods. When we’re healthy, we have trillions of these friendly bacteria from hundreds of different species living in our digestive tracts. Most of them reside in the intestines which is why they are sometimes called “intestinal flora”.

These bacteria support general well-being in several ways, such as supporting digestion and immunity. However, they can be very sensitive to changes in their environment. Keep on reading to learn how different lifestyle factors can significantly reduce their number.

Why are they important? (What are the benefits of probiotics?)

Why are they important? (What are the benefits of probiotics?)

 Friendly bacteria can help to maintain general health and wellbeing in a number of ways:

  1. They support healthy liver function, which in turn helps the body to rid itself of toxins.
  2. They assist with the digestive process, aiding the body in absorbing a full range of nutrients;
  3. Plus, they support regular, balanced elimination; and,
  4. They actually produce some essential vitamins such as vitamin K and many of the B vitamins needed by the body.

Some intestinal flora can also help to maintain healthy immunity. They do this by:

  1. Using up resources that harmful bacteria, yeasts and fungi would need to flourish, and
  2. Producing substances that actively deter these harmful micro-organisms.

Do we get probiotics from our food?

Probiotics are naturally found in certain foods that have been ‘fermented’.  Fermentation is a very ancient practice. And as such, fermented foods have been part of human diets for thousands of years.

In fact, fermentation was one of the earliest food preservation systems. It was also used to improve flavour and eliminate food toxins. This happens when the friendly micro-organisms – or ‘culture’ – used to start the process convert the sugars and starches they find into acids or alcohol.

The most commonly found probiotic cultures in foods are the Lactobacillus species which make lactic acid out of sugars. 

These beneficial probiotics can be found in foods such as:

These beneficial probiotics can be found in foods such as:

  • Yogurt – and other fermented dairy products like some cheeses, as well as,
  • Kefir – a fermented milk drink similar to thin, runny yoghurt, traditionally made with cow or goat milk;
  • Sourdough bread – which uses lactobacillus bacteria to ferment the dough creating air bubbles rather than traditional baker’s yeast;
  • Miso – a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans;
  • Sauerkraut – fermented cabbage, and despite the German name is in fact a Chinese invention some two thousand years ago;  
  • Kimchi – a traditional Korean dish combining a number of fermented vegetables including cabbage, carrot, radish, onions, garlic and spices;
  • Kombucha – a drink made of fermented black or green tea.

These may be a great addition to your daily diet to help keep your beneficial bacteria topped up.

What about Probiotic supplements, what do they contain billions of?

Probiotic supplements are often a more convenient route to get a greater variety of beneficial bacterial species at a guaranteed level. 

A probiotic supplement label tells you two very important pieces of information. First, it tells you exactly which species of probiotic bacteria you have in each capsule. And secondly, it indicates the ‘colony-forming units’ or CFU which refers to the actual number of live bacteria present in each capsule.

You see, the gut naturally has hundreds of different species that help to maintain good health. And our probiotic choices should also reflect this level of species diversity.  Add to that the trillions of microbes already in our gut, to make a dent in that crowded space, you need a large enough number of beneficial species to make their presence felt. This is why more powerful probiotic supplements number live organisms in the billions. At that level, these beneficial probiotics can make a difference. 

Fermented foods are a great addition to health, but they aren’t a guarantee of live microorganisms like a supplement is.  Fermented foods can’t always be relied on to provide exactly the level and diversity of beneficial bacteria we need for good health.   

What do probiotics have to do with antibiotics?

What do probiotics have to do with antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medications used to kill harmful bacteria that are causing illness and infection in the body.  But they are not selective, and eliminate all bacteria both good and bad. What’s more, after their use, the not-so-friendly bacteria tend to repopulate faster to fill the now-vacated space left in your gut.

So it is important to quickly replenish the digestive tract with beneficial bacteria. Probiotics can help reduce the likelihood of developing a yeast overgrowth (Candida – or thrush) after being on antibiotics.  And they also can be useful managing common side effects of antibiotics like a loose bowel or nausea. 

If taking a probiotic to minimise antibiotic side effects, take it at least 2 hours away from a dose of antibiotic. The best practice after being on a course of antibiotics is to follow it with a course of probiotics.  How long will depend on how long your antibiotic course was, how heavy duty and whether you had any digestive issues to start with.  One month is a good rule of thumb, but for some a longer duration of probiotics might be best. This helps your gut to recover and repopulate with a better balance of gut flora.

What are prebiotics, are they the same thing?

What are prebiotics, are they the same thing?

Prebiotics are actually the ‘foods’ that probiotics (our friendly bacteria) feed on to help them grow and thrive.  A ‘prebiotic’ is a type of dietary fibre that is resistant to our ability to digest it, but something our beneficial microorganisms like to eat.

Some of the main prebiotic fibres include:

  • ‘inulin’ and ‘oligofructose’ found in chicory root, dandelion greens, artichoke, garlic, onion, leek, and asparagus;
  • ‘pectin’ found in apples, plums, some berries and citrus fruits;
  • ‘beta-glucan’ found in oats and barley, and
  • ‘resistant starch’ – found in unripe green bananas, legumes and cold cooked potatoes.

What can lower the body’s natural levels of beneficial bacteria?

What can lower the body’s natural levels of beneficial bacteria?

 Many lifestyle factors can change the environmental conditions inside the digestive and intestinal system and make it less welcoming for friendly bacteria. Some of these include:

  • Antibiotic use (antibiotics kill both good and bad bacteria)
  • Certain medications, e.g. steroids or the Oral Contraceptive Pill
  • Frequent alcohol consumption
  • Stress or ageing
  • A highly processed diet

Why would I need extra probiotics?

Everyone gets niggly digestive issues at times – it might be too much gas or a feeling of being too full or bloated.  Maybe your number two’s are not exactly regular or perhaps even too loose.  These and many other signs can indicate that your overall balance of beneficial bacteria is not quite up to scratch.  Topping up with a probiotic to get those extra friendly bugs working for you can be helpful.

To learn more about how your gut works and why it’s a big deal, check out our article Gut Health Explained (& Why You Should Care).