We’ve all heard of probiotics, and we see a lot of press about their health benefits, but what exactly are they and are they actually beneficial? In this article we are going to discover what constitutes a probiotic and how they can help us to achieve our best health.
Let’s start by understanding what exactly probiotics are…
What are probiotics and What do they do?
According to WHO and FAO, probiotics are defined as ‘Live microorganisms which – when administered in adequate amounts – confer a health benefit on the host’. Essentially probiotics are what is often referred to as good bacteria. Probiotics’ main site of action is in the gut, as their role is to neutralise bad bacteria and thereby support our immune system. So, probiotics – good bacteria – play a major role in supporting good health such as:
- Helping our body to digest food
- Keeping bad bacteria in check so that we don’t get sick
- Creating vitamins
- Supporting the cells which line our gut to prevent bad bacteria from entering our blood stream
- Breaking down and absorbing medications
It was in the early 1900s that Henry Tissier, a French paediatrician, and Eli Metchnikoff, a Russian Nobel prize winner, started to investigate gut health with a particular interest in probiotic microorganisms. They investigated the gut microflora and its impact on diseases, focusing on specific bacterial strains. They were among the first to observe that probiotics could benefit the intestinal microbial balance and the host. Since then, many studies have been carried out to isolate further and identify many beneficial strains of probiotics. This research has proven to be highly valuable in terms of informing further studies and we continue to learn about the benefits and potential applications of probiotics.
Why Are Probiotics important?
The importance of probiotics is that these bacteria can use indigestible compounds, that reach the colon, as fuel to grow. Probiotics have a protective action in our gut as they compete for space in the colonic lumen against pathogenic bacteria such as Escherichia coli or Salmonella enterica.
A simple example of what happens when pathogens are present in our gut provoking an imbalance of our gut microbiota, is when we travel to places that might have substandard public hygiene. This often results in the phenomenon known as ‘traveller’s tummy’ or ‘traveller’s diarrhoea’. This can happen if we drink water or eat food that has been contaminated or water which has encountered pathogenic bacteria. The symptoms of traveller’s diarrhoea include nausea, bloating, cramping, fever, and fatigue. Probiotics can significantly help in this situation, and they can assist in getting you back to being able to enjoy your travels as intended. Since this condition is caused by an imbalance in the gut microflora and the presence of pathogenic bacteria in the gut, probiotics can be used to help restore that lost balance.
Our gut microbiome plays a vital role in our overall health as it manages and regulates our digestion. A healthy gut microbiome can produce metabolites, and these positively influence the immune system, our metabolism, and moods. You probably won’t need to know this (!) but you might see Metabolites referenced in the context of probiotics and they include
- Short-chain fatty acids
- Lactic acid
- Antibacterial peptides
Should you take probiotics while travelling?
For the reasons outlined above, some people take probiotics when they travel, especially when visiting countries renowned for their substandard public hygiene. Strains like Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria are the most common probiotics of choice in terms of travel precautions. Since these are live microorganisms, it is essential to remember that the storage conditions need to be able to keep these microorganisms alive so that they will be able to colonise the gut once ingested. The best strategy is to use probiotics in powder form. A diet characterised by probiotic-rich foods can also help mitigate the effects of traveller’s diarrhoea.
Probiotics and its importance in Irish Health
So now we know that probiotics not only help us digest food but can also fight harmful bacteria. They help restore and preserve a balance in our gut and support gut health in general. But what else can probiotics do to support our overall health?
Recent studies on gut health have demonstrated that both a healthy microbiota or an imbalanced one can impact humans’ and animals’ cognitive health and wellbeing. There is in fact, a bidirectional communication between the central and the enteric nervous system, which is directly influenced by the gut microflora and the different metabolites produced. What this suggests is that poor gut health can impact not only our physical health but our mental health too. The current research suggests that phenomena such as anxiety and depression could depend on a dysbiosis -an imbalance- in our microbiota.
But gut dysbiosis is not only linked to our cognitive health. It is related to our general health. For example, an imbalance in our microbiota can lead to metabolic disturbances. As Ireland has been recording very high levels of obesity across the population and the country is set to become the most obese country in Europe come 2025, it is interesting to look at how probiotics, or at least some specific strains of probiotics, can help tackle this problem.
Professor Ted Dinan from the University of Cork is one of the leading experts on probiotics and gut health. In 2018 Professor Dinan and his research group conducted a study with 124 volunteers. Participants were given a specific probiotic strain (Bifidobacterium longum) with the aim of reducing blood sugar levels and tackling obesity. Through his studies, he observed not only the positive effect of probiotics on cognitive health but also probiotics’ potential to help overweight people to reduce high blood glucose levels.
What Foods Have Probiotics?
While all these benefits sound great, you may be wondering how can we get probiotics? Probiotics can be found in food. The oldest process that provides probiotics is, in fact, fermentation. Interestingly, probiotics have been used for millennia by humans to treat ailments and to aid good health. It has been reported by the Roman historian Gaius Plinius Secundus that in 76 BC, fermented milk was prescribed as a treatment for gastroenteritis.
Despite the lack of scientific knowledge about probiotics’ benefits, people have used them over time -Lactobacilli specifically – for practical reasons such as food processing and conservation, modification, and to improve the flavour, texture and colour of raw ingredients.
The most renowned probiotic-rich foods are dairy-based such as:
- Fermented milk
- Kefir (not only rich in Lactobacilli but also in yeasts that can also exert a probiotic effect on our gut)
If you are looking at plant-based probiotic-rich foods, these include:
Do you need to use probiotic Supplements?
Including probiotic-rich foods in our diet is an excellent strategy to improve their presence in your gut; however, whether you are travelling or are taking specific medications, you might need supplementation.
There are some specific situations where probiotics are needed. For example, if you have certain medical conditions or if you are taking antibiotics following an infection, your gut microflora can be impacted, and you should take probiotics to restore your gut microflora to a healthy level. Informed advice can help you in this this context. There is a plethora of probiotic strains with different functions and effects on human health, so you’ll need to choose the right products and strains depending on your specific needs. For example, you will need to decide whether to take a single strain probiotic or a multi-strain one.
If you’re unsure about the type of probiotic or dosage you should take, it’s always a good idea to consult your healthcare provider (or you can contact us) to get professional advice. In general, the most popular supplements contain the main probiotics we host in our gut, which are:
What probiotic supplements work Best?
At Health Matters we offer a wide selection of trusted probiotic supplements that can assist you in your health journey. Here’s a selection of some of the products that are most popular with our customers. Look into what might suit your requirements and these supplements can help you to get started in improving your gut microbiome.
Natures Plus GI Nutra
Natures Plus GI Nutra has a range of probiotic supplements which offer the most beneficial strains for Men, Women and Children. This range of Probiotics will be on sale at Health Matters for the month of August, so if you are curious to try probiotic supplements now is the perfect time to pick up a deal!
Natures Aid Bio360 Pro Daily
Bio360 offers a daily supplement that offers 10 billion good bacteria from five different probiotic strains.
It is also free from gluten, yeast, nuts, sugar, salt and wheat.
Microbiome Once Daily Women’s
Microbiome once daily supplements have been developed with over 50 billion friendly bacteria specifically to support women’s health in areas such as digestion health and immune health.
Microbiome Once Daily Men’s
Microbiome once daily supplements have been developed with over 50 billion friendly bacteria specifically to support men’s health in areas such as colon health and immune health.
Final Words on Probiotics and its Importance in Irish Health
Probiotics has been getting a lot of attention in recent years; for good reason. Adding probiotics to a healthy diet is a great way to support gut health and aid digestion. Not only that, but the link between our gut health and our mental health may offer alternative solutions for those seeking to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Why not explore our trusted selection of probiotic supplements from our online store or at our retail outlets?