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What you need to know about probiotics

What you need to know about probiotics
Probiotic food for bowel health

Naturopath and Kombucha City founder Gail Matthew looks at how to increase good bacteria in our bowel and whether we should get our probiotics in a pill or on our plate.

Whenever I write about fermented foods or gut health, I talk about the benefits of probiotics. Let’s take a closer look at why these are an excellent source of the good bacteria we need to support our gut and bowel, and the best way to increase our intake.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are a combination of live beneficial bacteria that naturally live in our bodies. We host two kinds of bacteria — good bacteria and bad bacteria. Probiotics are made up of good bacteria that help keep our bodies healthy and working well. The largest number of beneficial probiotics live in our bowel.

Keeping the right balance of good and bad bacteria helps keep your gut healthy. This is essential because digestion is one of the body’s most important processes – food is our body’s fuel and we can only keep going if our digestion system can extract the nutrients we need for energy, growth and cell repair. Digestion impacts almost every organ and system in our bodies as it breaks down carbohydrates, protein and fats, removes toxins and extracts nutrients, then eliminates waste.

In fact, 80 per cent of our immune system lies within the gut and our digestive health can even impact our mood and mental health.

Why do we need them?

Probiotics are thought to help restore the natural balance of bacteria in your bowel when it's been disrupted by an illness or treatment.

When you lose good bacteria in your body, for example after you take antibiotics, probiotics can help replace them.

Good and bad bacteria live in symbiotic harmony in your bowel and if the bad bacteria begin to outnumber the good, health issues can occur. It’s important to have more good than bad bacteria.

Probiotics can also treat illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and infections such as diarrhoea or gastric upset.

Even if you are not unwell, probiotics are working hard to help your body digest food and to create vitamins.

Bowel health

What's the best way to consume probiotics?

The two common ways we increase our intake of probiotics are by eating foods that contain good bacteria or by taking a probiotic supplement.

Some of the probiotic-rich foods you can add to your diet include:

  • Yogurt with live cultures
  • Kombucha
  • Sourdough bread
  • Buttermilk
  • Tempeh
  • Fermented pickles
  • Kimchi
  • Miso soup

If you have just finished a course of antibiotics, if you have been very unwell or if you are suffering from a gastric upset such as food poisoning, vomiting or diarrhoea, a supplement is a quick way to restore some normality to your gut.

Ideally, though, probiotic supplements shouldn’t be taken long-term. It’s better (and cheaper) to use them for a short time to boost your health, then return to relying mainly on food as a source of good bacteria for your bowel.

I took probiotic supplements for a time but when I changed my diet to include more fermented foods, I felt so much better.

If you can’t get fermented foods in your diet for some reason, and you do take a probiotic supplement long-term, change it regularly to ensure you are getting a bigger variety of bacteria.

What should you look for in a probiotic supplement?

What should you look for in probiotic supplements

If you do need a probiotic supplement, a general recommendation is to choose probiotic products with at least one billion colony-forming units. You might like to look out for one containing the genus Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Bacillus or Saccharomyces boulardii, which are some of the most researched probiotics.

To be effective, a probiotic supplement needs to contain live and active bacterial cultures, and some types of probiotics need to be stored in the fridge. Do your research and talk to a qualified naturopath to get a probiotic that is right for you and will give you a good bang for your buck.

Supporting our digestive system and maintaining good gut health has long-term payoffs for our wellbeing so it’s worth investing some time and energy into increasing our probiotic intake.

Posted: Monday 17 April 2023