The health benefits of probiotics explained
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Health and fitness gurus online swear by probiotics and nutritionists and even doctors sometimes recommend these supplements. However, a year’s supply of probiotics will cost you hundreds or even thousands of pounds and you might not necessarily notice a difference. Are probiotics a waste of money? Express.co.uk chatted to Dr Kate Stephens, Gut Microbiologist at Optibac, to find out the benefits of probiotics and everything you should know before investing.
Probiotics are supplements that contain live cultures, or ‘good bacteria’, which work to restore our gut microbiome.
Each supplement contains a certain strain, or a combination of strains, which act in different ways to help support a healthy gut, where 70 percent of the immune system is found.
According to Dr Stephens, most people could benefit from taking a daily probiotic. But why?
Our gut microbiome is always in a delicate balance and many factors can disrupt the composition.
Dr Stephens explained: “The microbes in our gut support us day to day- in fact, we couldn’t live without them!
“However, some of these microbes can cause harm when their numbers increase.
“They need to be kept in check and outweighed by plenty of good, friendly bacteria.”
Unfortunately, the western lifestyle is not very microbiome friendly and there are many factors that can reduce the number of friendly bacteria, providing more space and nutrients for these potentially harmful microbes to thrive.
Stress, antibiotics, high sugar and fat diets, low fibre intake, travel, pesticides, smoking, reduced exercise, caesarean sections and poor sleep cycles (e.g. shift work) are just a few examples of things that cause an imbalance in the gut, also known as microbial imbalance dysbiosis.
Dr Stephens explained: “When dysbiosis occurs, you may see some very recognisable side effects: constipation, bloating, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, low immunity, fatigue, low mood and poor skin- to name a few!”
Research is now showing our microbiome to be connected with so many health conditions from irritable bowel syndrome to depression to skin health and even to our metabolic health.
The doctor added: “Keeping your gut healthy and topping up with friendly bacteria can support our overall well being and some scientists believe probiotics to be the medicine of the future.”
Many scientists refer to the gut as the second brain because it is believed to affect every aspect of our health.
Dr Stephens said: “Research is showing our gut microbiome is associated with; IBS, IBD, GI health, mental health, liver disease, pregnancy health and outcomes, allergies, eczema, colic, fertility, vaginal health, bone health, oral health, Parkinson’s, obesity, heart and metabolic health as well as a range of other health concerns.”
Whether you have concerns in one of these areas or not, you could benefit from taking probiotics.
Do you REALLY need to take probiotics?
Whether or not you need to take probiotic supplements is all down to your life experiences, according to Camilla Gray, Nutritional Therapist at Optibac.
She said: “How you were born, what medication you have taken, what countries you have travelled to, what diet you consume etc, and then ultimately what symptoms you may have as an outcome of those past experiences.
“If we start from birth, evidence is suggesting that we inherit our first influx of microbes from our mother during pregnancy and birth.
“This is fine if she passes on a healthy balance of the type of bacteria which will support our health, but not so good if we inherit a less desirable mix.
“As the majority of the bacteria are believed to be passed on to the newborn child during their passage down the birth canal, then it’s thought that children born via Caesarean section could begin life at a microbial disadvantage.
“Let’s not forget that living in our modern world means there are many other factors that may harm our delicate balance; stress, alcohol and lack of sleep to name but a few.
“We all have a gut microbiome that is as unique as our fingerprint, containing good, bad, and neutral bacteria along with yeasts, and maybe even viruses or parasites.”
So, to summarise, if you have a diet rich in natural whole foods that includes probiotics and fermented foods and beverages then it may not be necessary for you to take a probiotic supplement, provided you don’t have any health concerns.
However, if you suffer from a specific health condition that probiotics have been researched to support, Ms Gray says: “It may be prudent to find a supplement that contains strains researched to help with that specific condition – regardless of your intake of fermented foods.”
If you’ve made the decision to start taking supplements for your gut, don’t just go and buy any old probiotics – it’s important to look at the strain within the probiotic to understand what specific health conditions it can help with.
Dr Stephens said: “When it comes to probiotics, it’s not a one size fits all approach.
“Probiotic strains work in lots of different ways and carry out different functions. Some strains are better at modulating the immune system whereas others may be able to lower cholesterol.
“When it comes to choosing a probiotic, perhaps consider it the same way you would choose a new car or a dog- what are your needs? What characteristics are you after?
“A probiotic for IBS would likely not work in the same way as a probiotic for intimate health. A probiotic for diarrhoea may not work for constipation and vice versa.”
When buying your probiotics, consider why you want to take a probiotic and what symptoms you have.
The doctor added: “You might be able to self-select your probiotic based on the name, but if you’re unsure, ask the shop owner or contact the brand.
“Tell them your symptoms and ask for their guidance on which product you should take.
“Optibac provides this service and invites customers to drop them a DM on Instagram or give the team a call to find the best product for you.”
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