Heard of probiotics but not sure if you need them? Our experts explain how they could help your gut and, in turn, your overall health.
Our gut health can tell us a lot about our overall health, and therefore, it’s crucial we take the time to make sure it’s functioning well. A healthy gut, for instance, means a well-supported immune system, glowing skin and strong cognition.
A big part of a healthy gut is ensuring you have the right balance of bacteria, meaning you have a healthy microbiome. And to ensure this healthy balance, you need probiotics, which help to add a variety of good bacteria to your gut.
What is a probiotic?
Andrea Burton, Technical Advisor at ADM Protexin, which specialises in probiotics with its Bio-Kult brand, explained: “Probiotics are live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host1.”
Sarah Oboh, Nutritionist at OptiBac Probiotics, added: “Probiotics are defined as microorganisms that, when consumed, can maintain or restore beneficial bacteria to the digestive tract. They are often referred to as ‘friendly’ or ‘good’ bacteria or yeasts that are beneficial for our health.”
And why are they good for you?
“Research shows that probiotics support digestive health by producing specific enzymes needed to aid the digestion of food and break down its substances. Probiotics may help to improve the absorption of vitamins and minerals into the bloodstream. They also produce B vitamins and vitamin K1,” Sarah explained.
“Probiotics may help to support immunity in stimulating the body’s natural defences by lining the intestines with a protective layer of beneficial bacteria, which crowds out pathogenic microbes to keep the gut healthy. With around 70 per cent of our immune system being based in our gut, gut health is a key factor to our overall wellbeing.”
Andrea added: “Dysbiosis in the gut is a term used to describe an imbalance in the quantity and/or distribution of bacteria. It has been associated with the development of a wide range of both intestinal and extra-intestinal symptoms and may increase the risk of developing various conditions.10 Particular benefits that live bacteria supplements may offer are:
- The inhibition of pathogens.
- Supporting the gut barrier function.
- Providing extra nutrition by assisting in food digestion and the synthesis of nutrients (such as B vitamins, vitamin K and short-chain fatty acids).4
- Supporting the function of the immune system (70 per cent of which resides in the gut). Frequent colds and infections are a common sign that someone’s microbiome could do with some extra support, as are autoimmune and other inflammatory conditions.7
- There is also increasing evidence that modulating the gut-brain axis using live bacteria supplements can be a useful therapeutic solution for anxiety and depression3.”
A range of benefits
Looking in greater detail at the benefits, why are probiotics important not just for the gut, but for different areas of our health?
“The human gut microbiome is essential for healthy digestive function and it also has a key involvement in many other physiological processes. In fact, microbial imbalance in the gut has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, liver disease, skin diseases, vaginal health conditions and poor mental health2. Probiotics can fortify the gut with beneficial bacteria, restoring equilibrium, protecting against infection and encouraging a balanced microbiome which contributes to our overall health,” Sarah advised.
“Studies have shown positive effects for the use of live bacteria supplements in a range of health conditions, including their effectiveness for acute infectious diarrhoea, antibiotic-associated diarrhoea, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and functional gastrointestinal disorders2,” Andrea commented.
“Potential therapeutic applications for probiotics are diverse and research indicates they may also be of benefit in many non-digestive conditions, such as allergy, asthma, eczema, acne, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and obesity4.”
Choose a supplement
There is some important advice to follow when choosing a probiotic supplement to ensure it both works but is of the quality you need.
Andrea suggested: “When purchasing a live bacteria supplement, it’s important to consider the number and different types of strains in a product. Multi-strain products better mimic our exposure to multiple types of bacteria in nature and have been found to be more effective at inhibiting pathogens than their component strains administered separately.6 As the effects of bacteria have been shown to be strain specific, strains should be clearly identified on the product. This includes listing not only the genera (for example, Lactobacillus) and species (for example, acidophilus), but also the specific strain number (for example, PXN35).
“One thing to watch out for is manufacturer guarantees relating to the strength of the product. Many manufacturers promise high CFU counts (colony forming units), but on closer inspection, it transpires these are only guaranteed at the time of manufacture. More reliable products are those which state CFU counts to the expiry of the product’s shelf-life. Very high CFU doses are also often not necessary with some studies showing benefits with doses as low as 100 million CFU a day.8
“A common concern is the ability of bacteria to survive stomach acid. Delivery mechanisms, such as enteric coated capsules or cryoprotectants applied to the bacteria themselves, which ensure that viable bacteria reach the intestines are therefore required. Don’t be afraid to contact probiotic manufacturers to request evidence to show their products have the ability to survive stomach acid. Not all live bacteria products require refrigeration, therefore assess the merits of the product objectively and look at supporting evidence.”
Sarah added: “It is important to bear in mind that not all probiotics are the same. Probiotics generally comprise a genus (for example, Lactobacillus), a species (for example, acidophilus), and a strain (for example, Rosell-52). Whilst the genus and species tell us a little about the probiotic’s properties and where it settles in the body, it is the strain that determines the volume of research behind a particular probiotic. “For example, L. acidophilus is generally accepted to be a good probiotic species. However, one acidophilus is not equal to another acidophilus. It is the strain name that matters when you choose a probiotic because different types of probiotic strains have been shown to help support different areas of health. For example, L. acidophilus NCFM and L. acidophilus Rosell-52 are two strains from the same species, but they have been clinically trialled for different conditions and you should therefore always choose the strain that best supports your specific health needs.
“When purchasing a probiotic supplement, it is recommended to choose a formula with guaranteed viability of probiotic strains that have been well researched in their ability to survive stomach acidity and bile to reach the gut alive. Research should also provide evidence of the beneficial bacteria being able to proliferate and colonise in the gut to exert probiotic benefits.”
It’s important to bear in mind that certain species are beneficial for certain areas of our health and wellbeing. So, what should you consider?
Sarah explained: “Poor gut health can manifest as a range of gastrointestinal symptoms, including constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, abdominal pains and irritable bowel syndrome. Probiotics have been researched for irritable bowel syndrome and general gastrointestinal symptoms. Bifidobacterium lactis HN019, in particular, has been shown to alleviate a host of gastrointestinal issues such as regurgitation, flatulence, vomiting, abdominal pain and constipation when taken for four days at a dose of 17.2 billion CFU3.
“Bacillus coagulans Unique IS-2 is one of the most researched strains of Bacillus for children and is a spore-forming bacterium. These types of bacteria create a protective coating which helps them to survive harsh conditions in the body. Once these bacteria reach the favourable conditions of the intestinal environment, they remove their protective spore and behave as a probiotic4. Bacillus coagulans Unique IS-2 is a great all-rounder for gut and immune support in children. This strain has been clinically demonstrated as effective for children suffering with irritable bowel syndrome and constipation5.
“In relation to pregnancy, Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 really is a superstar strain. It has been researched in hundreds of pregnant women and is one of the few strains in the world to be clinically trialled for gestational diabetes6. This strain has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of postnatal depression and anxiety, and to support immune and vaginal health in pregnancy7. Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 has also demonstrated protective effects for the baby, as it may help with immune development and has been shown to reduce the risk of eczema in children8.”
And Andrea also explained the benefits of a multi-strain product.
“The beneficial effects of different bacteria are strain specific. Therefore, which strains are most appropriate will depend on an individual’s circumstances and the reasons they are looking to supplement. This is why I would recommend multi-strain products, especially as different strains exert their effects in different parts of the gastrointestinal tract, and so may be of benefit in a wider range of digestive conditions,” she explained.
“One such multi-strain formula was recently used in the largest-ever double-blind randomised controlled trial of live bacteria supplements in IBS-diarrhoea type patients ever-conducted.5 The study in 400 people found that bacterial supplementation significantly improved overall symptom severity in IBS patients and was well tolerated. Abdominal pain and frequency reduced by an average of 69 per cent and 34 per cent of participants were completely symptom free at the end of the four-month trial. Significantly though, as well as relieving IBS-D symptoms, beneficial bacteria was also shown to markedly improve all aspects of quality of life. This includes psychological issues such as anxiety about health, depression, lack of enjoyment of life, and feelings of having to avoid stressful situations.
“This is not to say however that single strain products are inferior. For example, there has been recent growing interest in the spore forming species Bacillus subtilis. This is because it was included in an animal study of roundworms analysing the impact upon a specific protein called α-synuclein. When this protein forms clumps, they become toxic to specific nerve cells in the brain that lead to progressive and disabling motor symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease. This strain was shown to not only protect against the build-up of this toxic protein but also managed to clear pre-formed clumps, which is very promising.9 It may therefore be the case that in some instances, single strain products are beneficial for specific targeted issues, whereas for digestive health and general wellbeing, a multi-strain may provide more overall support.”
- References are available on request.
True Health has partnered with OptiBiotix.online to offer readers a chance of winning one of five bundles containing three months’ supply of CholBiomeX3 (worth £69). Featuring Lactobacillus plantarum LPLDL, Monacolin K and vitamin B3, this probiotic food supplement contains ingredients scientifically proven to lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and improve ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, while lowering blood pressure. Now available in a smaller tri-layer tablet format, CholBiomeX3 is a great way to maintain a healthy heart. Click here to enter.