Probiotics are live microorganisms that have beneficial effects on an individual’s health and body. Probiotics may restore the composition of the gut microbiome and promote beneficial effects leading to prevention of gut inflammation and other intestinal diseases.
Probiotics assist with keeping your body healthy by supporting your immune system and controlling inflammation. Certain types of good bacteria found in probiotics help with digestion of food, reducing bad levels of bacteria in the body, production of vitamins, breakdown and absorption of medications and supporting the cells that line your gut.
Prebiotics are specialized fiber from plants that help to nourish the good bacteria already present in the colon. Prebiotics act as fertilizer, while probiotics function by introducing new bacteria into the gut.
Probiotic foods include miso soup, tempeh, apple cider vinegar, yogurt, raw cheese, kefir, sauerkraut and brine-cured olives.
Probiotic supplements contain specific strains which can be matched to a condition or purpose. Probiotics containing more than one strain of bacteria are known as multi-strain supplements or poly-strain/polybiotics.
Prebiotics foods include onions, leeks, radishes, carrots, flax and chia seeds, tomatoes, bananas, asparagus, garlic and yams.
The most common forms are Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS). FOS can be extracted from plants or synthesized while GOS is synthetic. Inulin is a type of FOS used as a prebiotic supplement.
These are products that contain both prebiotics and probiotics. As probiotics need prebiotics to survive, it is important to take the right amount of both. The main objective of combining pre- and probiotics is to achieve stronger positive results working synergistically rather than each individual component on its own.
Probiotics are identified by their specific strain. This includes the genus, species and subspecies (if applicable) and an alphanumeric strain designation. The most common strains often used in probiotic products are Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, Escherichia, and Bacillus.
Bifidobacterium bifidum lives in the large intestine and vagina where it adheres to the walls and prevents bad bacteria from colonizing. It also produces substances that lower the pH of their environment, therefore preventing growth of bad bacteria.
Bifidobacterium breve competes against harmful bacteria due to the large variety of molecules it can digest. It also inhibits growth of Escherichia coli (E. coli.) present in the intestines and candida albicans in the vagina. It is known to decrease the occurrence of gas, diarrhea and bowel disorders.
Bifidobacterium infantis is beneficial for both adults and children. It helps to prevent growth of harmful bacteria and assists with production of vitamin B. It also provides relief of symptoms associated with IBS and ulcerative colitis.
Bifidobacterium longum stimulates the immune system and promotes microbial balance. It also aids in the absorption of B vitamins. This strain may help to prevent or reduce allergic reactions, allergies, inflammation associated with Crohn’s disease or colitis. It has also been found to lower the pH of the intestine to inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. Studies have found that this strain is beneficial in supporting management of stress and anxiety.
Lactobacillus acidophilus lives in the mouth, intestines and vagina. In the intestines, it maintains integrity of the wall and aids in nutrient absorption. In the vagina and urinary system, it adheres to the walls where it can fight infection. This strain also helps to synthesize vitamin K and many antimicrobial substances.
Lactobacillus casei lives in the mouth and intestines and has anti-inflammatory effects on the GI and assists with relieving antibiotic associated diarrhea. It produces lactic acid which lowers the pH of the gut, therefore preventing growth of harmful bacteria.
Lactobacillus helveticus lives in the intestines and is known to have microbial activities against pathogens and helps to reduce symptoms of lactose intolerance by breaking down lactose. It also assists with preventing and reducing diarrhea and may help with lowering cholesterol and blood pressure and improves calcium absorption. Studies have found that this strain is beneficial for management of anxiety and stress.
Lactobacillus reuteri helps to maintain a healthy immune system and is associated with support against candida and urinary tract infections. This strain also helps to relieve colic in infants.
Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG is known for combating antibiotic associated diarrhea and traveler's diarrhea. It helps to fight infections in the gut and urinary tract. This strain also assists with dairy digestion and lactose intolerance.
Saccharomyces boulardii is effective in reducing acute diarrhea in children and adults. It also provides protection against antibiotics and traveler’s diarrhea and promotes immune health.
Streptococcus thermophilis is known as a starter strain for making yogurt and cheese. It ferments lactose that turns into lactic acid which is effective at preventing lactose intolerance. It also assists with keeping the microflora of the intestines balanced.
Generally probiotics should be taken 30 minutes before a meal on an empty stomach. This prevents probiotic bacteria from being destroyed as less stomach acid is present. However certain probiotics can be taken anytime depending on the capsule technology to ensure no degradation of the probiotic bacteria.
There are four important factors to consider when choosing a probiotic:
- The probiotic must contain enough bacteria to make a difference to the balance of gut bacteria.
- The bacteria must be able to survive the journey through the acidic environment of the stomach to make it into the gut.
- There should be a mix of different bacteria in the probiotic as strain specific bacteria are relevant for certain conditions.
- The probiotic should be taken regularly, since probiotic bacteria do not permanently colonise the gut.
The number of CFU’s (colony-forming units) a person needs will depend on their purpose for taking probiotics. While most studies show that 10-20 million CFU are adequate for probiotic benefits, larger CFUs may be more suitable for individuals requiring significant support (e.g Clostridium difficile) and/or seeking relief from certain health conditions such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease and pouchitis etc.