Probiotics, do we need them?

By Eli Sarre – Resident Nutritional Therapist

Probiotics are microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host[i]

The growing interest in supplementation with probiotics and probiotic food and drink reflects the potential of our gut microorganisms to protect our health and even potentially prevent disease. This is such a complex and developing area of research, and although microcopic organisms are tiny and cannot be seen by the naked eye, they are essential for life as we know it.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are live microorganisms, usually bacteria or yeasts, that are thought to support the health of the digestive system by controlling the spread of unwanted gut microbes and encouraging the growth of beneficial bacteria.

This is one of the most fascinating areas of current scientific research and although we need to understand more, there is a general consensus that probiotic supplementation is safe and that the potential for improving health justifies the ever-growing number of studies.

Why do we need probiotics?

The human digestive system involves a galaxy of gut flora, nutrients we absorb from our food every day and the structure of our own cells and tissues. In a healthy gut, these components are all working together in synergy. In a harmonious balanced relationship, we provide the nourishment and the environment for our gut bugs and in return, they assist us with our own health and wellbeing. If imbalance occurs, we shift into dysbiosis and the implications for our health may be far reaching.

Are probiotics the same as prebiotics?

In order to keep our microbiota happy, we also need to consider the quality and quantity of prebiotics in our diet. These are usually obtained from plant foods and provide the nourishment for our gut flora. Prebiotics are non-digestible substrates which feed a diverse and healthy gut microbiome via a process of fermentation.

What to look for in a probiotic

1/ Viability

If supplementing, temperature is an important factor. Before taking, check the label to see if your probiotic needs to be refrigerated. Some can be kept at room temperature and some prefer cooler places. The live bacteria will then need to survive the acidic environment of the stomach and reach their destination – the GI tract.

2/ Metabolic activity

They then need to germinate and proliferate and get to work metabolically, most commonly by producing L(+) Lactic Acid as a primary product of fermentation. Lactic bacteria convert sugars in food to lactic acid which acidifies the pH in the gut. This means that the environment in the gut is less hospitable to pathogenic bacteria which may contribute towards illness if we don’t seek regulating and protective measures to promote resistance to colonisation.

3/ Clinical research demonstrating beneficial effect

There are numerous different strains of probiotic. The evaluation of different strains is a growing area of research and you can find many studies now at the click of a button. If possible, choose a strain or group of strains that are well supported by human studies showing positive outcomes. If the study shows a good outcome in relation to the symptoms you are experiencing that’s even better. Reputable companies will use only well indicated strains.

3/ Safety

Probiotics like Bacillus coagulans are rigorously tested and to classify as a probiotic they must not cause any harm. In some cases, high dose supplementation of a practitioner strength formulation may cause mild bloating, so if you know you are reactive it may be wise to begin with a gentle amount of a well-researched strain, building your tolerance and digestive balance gradually to avoid any discomfort.

How do probiotics work?

According to current understanding, the human microbiome is primarily formed within the first three years of life and is resistant to colonisation. Probiotics like Bacillus coagulans will be slowly excreted from the body when we stop taking them so any potential benefit would be during the metabolically active phase.

While they are with us, they may help protect us by keeping the bad bugs under control. They may even preserve healthy immune and cardiovascular function by altering the intestinal microecology, producing beneficial antimicrobial compounds and stimulating the body’s immune response[ii].

Probiotics may work differently for different people though if they help tip the balance in the right direction they are well worth including in your daily routine.

If you experience any of the symptoms or conditions in this article, we recommend you discuss treatment options with your GP as well as with a registered Nutritionist specialising in gut and immune health. Your nutritionist will work alongside you and your GP to give you the best and safest support possible.

[i]Joint FAO/WHO Working Group Report on Drafting Guidelines for the Evaluation of Probiotics in Food

London, Ontario, Canada, April 30 and May 1, 2002

[ii]Majeed, Muhammed & Nagabhushanam, Kalyanam & Natarajan, Sankaran & Arumugam, Sivakumar & Pande, Anurag & Majeed, Shaheen & Ali, Furqan. (2016). A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Parallel Study Evaluating the Safety of Bacillus coagulans MTCC 5856 in Healthy Individuals. Journal of Clinical Toxicology. 6. 283. 10.4172/2161-0495.1000283.