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As part of my gut health series I started with an introductory post to the subject and promised to then go on to talk about probiotics and prebiotics in more detail.

In this post I will look at probiotics and what they may, or may not be able to do to help positively develop your gut microflora (the range of micro-organisms including bacteria, fungi and parasites that work together to make your gut, and therefore you, healthy).

You have probably heard about probiotics and may be wondering if you should give them a try. These are supplements or foods containing microorganisms known to be good for our gut and include fermented milk drinks (of which there are many brands including Yakult and Actimel); natural yogurt containing live bacteria; and fermented foods including sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kefir or kombucha.

As we know that the presence of ‘healthy’ types of bacteria in the gut have been shown in many studies to affect the gut environment in a way that positively affects health (see my earlier post), consuming a food or supplement containing these bacteria (often including lactobacilli and bifidobacteria) is thought to result in an increase in the number and variety of theses bacteria in the gut and therefore offer a health benefit.

However, one of the difficulties with these foods/products is knowing whether the bacteria make it alive into the gut through the harsh acidic environment of the stomach and if they do, do they just pass straight through us or actually stay in the gut and make a difference? 

Another challenge is proving whether a specific formula of probiotic makes a difference to everyone’s health because each person’s gut is different and contains a unique microbiota ‘finger print’. We all have an abundance, and are lacking in, varying strains of bacteria, so while I might benefit from taking a probiotic containing certain strains of bacteria, it might not make any difference to you if you already have plenty of that strain in your gut, and you might be lacking in a different strain.

Proving that probiotics work at a population level is therefore very difficult and there is currently no strong evidence of probiotic products or foods improving gut health because of these issues. The EU does not therefore allow the use of the term ‘Probiotics’ to describe foods or products in labelling as this infers a positive health effect, when none has yet been proven.

If you are tempted to buy a probiotic supplement it is therefore worth trying out a variety, stick with each one for about six weeks and if you don’t notice a difference then try a different strain. If like me, you are resistant to spending lots of money on supplements you are not sure will make a difference, why not just include foods in your diet that are natural sources of probiotics, such as natural yogurt, kefir and kombucha. (Be aware that fermented foods are often high in salt, so be careful not to consume these in high quantities). 

One step I have taken towards fighting my daughter’s allergies through protecting her gut, is giving her a serving of unsweetened natural yogurt each day, in the hope that some of the bacteria will make it into her gut and reinforce her immune system.

If you have more questions about probiotics you might find the NHS and British Nutrition Foundation pages on this useful.

Watch out for the final post in this series coming soon on prebiotics, including my five top tips for improving your gut health.


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