Guide to Probiotics

As a nation, we’re constantly on the lookout for simple ways to improve our diet in order to see the biggest health gains. Digestion is responsible for the breakdown of our food, allowing the body to use the nutrients for energy, growth, and to repair damaged cells.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are often referred to as the ‘good bacteria’ that help maintain gut health. They’re made from live bacteria and yeasts that promote a health environment for your stomach and bowels in order for you to get the most out of your food.

What do probiotics do?

Depending on the strain of bacteria you ingest, there are a host of benefits you could experience. For example, strains like Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, L reuteri, L casei Shirota, and Bifidobacterium lactis Bb12 have been found to help treat infectious diarrhoea.1 The can also aid other long-term conditions that affect a large number of people.

The treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

The live bacteria in probiotics are often used in the management and treatment of IBS, the most common condition to affect the digestive system.2 Common symptoms of IBS include bloating, flatulence and stomach cramping. While it’s not known what causes IBS, some research has found probiotics taken daily for six months can help reduce symptoms by up to 42% (compared to just 6% with placebo).3

A 2008 review of 10 trials involving 918 people which assessed the use of probiotics for treating IBS found they were significantly more beneficial than placebo,4 and a more recent study corroborated these findings with significant improvements in distension, bloating, and flatulence.5

The management of certain food intolerances

It may only seem like probiotics have only gained popularity over recent years, but the health benefits have been known for much longer. A 1997 paper6 found evidence to suggest that some strains have the power to reduce intestinal inflammation and may help in the treatment of certain food allergies.

A recent study looked at eight different strains of probiotics and while they had variable levels of efficacy, the overall findings suggests that probiotics are beneficial in the treatment of lactose intolerance.7

Getting probiotics from your diet

Probiotics naturally occur in a number of foods, including kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir and some yoghurt. They can also be added to foods like yoghurts, and even chocolate, to provide added health benefits.

As many of these foods can have quite strong flavours that you may not be too keen on, or able to eat on a regular basis, taking a supplement is an easier way to obtain the benefits.

Safety

If you are taking any prescription medication, discuss the use of probiotics with your GP.

Correct dosage

The levels of colony-forming units (CFUs) will vary depending on the type of probiotic you’re taking and what you’re taking it for. Some studies recommend a minimum of 1bn CFU/day while others say 10bn.8

NICE guidelines9 suggest that if you’re taking probiotics for the management of IBS, you should take them for a minimum of four weeks and should always follow the recommended dosage set by the manufacturer.

Probiotic bacteria have many beneficial effects, priming the immune system, suppressing the growth of harmful bacteria, and aiding digestion. They may even have an effect on our mood, with some strains being referred to as ‘pschobiotics’. Each strain is as individual as you and I, however, so it’s important to select the right strains for the required health benefits.

Dr Sarah Brewer
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