Probiotics – the low down

There has been a hit word that has been floating around in the food, gut health, and medical scene for some time. Probiotics. What are these? What do they do? And why are they important to our health?

Probiotics are living organisms, such as bacteria and yeast, which live within the digestive tract. Their role is to keep the digestive tracts in the healthiest possible condition. There are trillions, yes, trillions, of bacteria that live within the gut, and probiotics are the “good” bacteria. Probiotics are naturally found within our body, but we can also get these from food and supplements which can change the overall balance of bacteria in the gut.

The bacteria which live in the gut are different for every person, everyone has their own bacteria “fingerprint” which makes their gut unique. This bacteria changes based on the foods that we eat, which can affect bowel motions (how often and the consistency), the way it smells, and the ability to digest foods. Gut bacteria can change within a matter of days, which is why there can be such a change in bowel habits, for example, when people go on holidays and are eating different foods that they usually do. For many people, it is very normal to eat differently on the weekends compared to week days, which can be very bad for the bacteria which live in the gut, as it can cause such a shock by the different foods available, which changes to accommodate this, and then has to revert back once the weekend is over (good tip to avoid going too crazy with food on the weekend).

The two most common forms of probiotics are Lactobacillus (most common form), and Bifidobacterium. These can help with a variety of gut conditions, but this can be dependent on the strain of probiotic in the food or supplement.

Enriching our diet with probiotic foods will create a great variety of bacteria within the gut. Rich sources of probiotic food are:

  • Yoghurt – this can be naturally occurring or added.
  • Miso soup – fermented soy beans, but can be very salty.
  • Green olives
  • Sour dough bread
  • Fermented milk products
  • Green peas
  • Dark chocolate
  • Soft, aged cheese
  • Cottage cheese
  • Tempeh – made from fermented soy beans.
  • Kefir
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kombucha

Fermented foods are a great source of probiotics, which can be worked into eating. They do not need to become a staple.

Probiotic supplements can benefit some people who have digestive issues, such as IBS or diarrhoea, but careful choice must be made in order to select strains which are beneficial. Asking your GP or an APD who specialises in this area can be a good way to increase your knowledge on whether these products will work for you, as some people don’t always have noticeable changes.