Hippocrates didn’t hold back when he claimed “death sits in the bowel”.
There are 10 times more bacteria in the digestive system than there are cells in the body. Known as microflora, this internal ecosystem weighs up to two kilograms and makes up most of the dry weight of faeces. Before you reach for the antiseptic, it is important to know that many of these bacteria are beneficial to health. The good guys are referred to as probiotics, which breed in the bowel and can be found in food or taken as a supplement. Every person’s assembly of microflora is unique to them, like fingerprints and DNA.
Only a few of the more than 500 species of bacteria found in the bowel have been studied in depth. Some create vitamins such as K, B5, B9 and B12. Others help improve absorption of magnesium, calcium and iron.
The good bugs defend their turf from pathogenic intruders, which is why a course of probiotics before travelling can prevent stomach upset. A large percentage of the immune system is located around the bowel and probiotics are important for the maintenance and regulation of immunity, helping prevent coughs, colds and infections. Other conditions that respond well to probiotics include diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, eczema and asthma. Studies have shown certain probiotics help prevent bowel (colorectal) cancer.
Prebiotics are food for probiotics. Prebiotics are found in asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, onions, beans, chickpeas, lentils and supplementary fibres such as psyllium, pectin, guar gum and slippery elm.
Foods that contain probiotics include yoghurt, miso, sauerkraut, kefir, natto, tempeh and kimchi. To maintain a healthy microflora, small amounts of probiotic foods need to be consumed several times a week.
Nutrition nourishment recommend regular consumption of pre- and probiotic foods for good health and when the condition warrants it – such as after a course of antibiotics – I prescribe a high-dose probiotic supplement.
- Prebiotics are indigestible carbohydrates that are used as nourishment by probiotics allowing them to survive in the gut.
- Working together pro- and prebiotics have positive benefits on the health of the digestive system.
- There is still insufficient evidence for many of the health claims associated with taking probiotics.
What they are
Probiotics and prebiotics are beneficial to digestive health because of the positive effect they have on the bacteria that lives in our digestive systems. Probiotics are live micro-organisms (mostly bacteria), and prebiotics are the non-digestible foods, mainly carbohydrates, which stimulate the growth of probiotics.
Our gut is home to numerous bacteria, otherwise known as gut flora. A healthy digestive system has a good balance of both good and bad bacteria.
If the balance is upset (often due to lifestyle and dietary factors), harmful bacteria can flourish increasing the risk of diarrhea, vaginal yeast infections and many other health problems.
Causes for the probiotic balance of your digestive system to be disturbed include:
- Taking antibiotics.
- Eating a poor diet high in refined carbohydrates.
- Insufficient dietary fibre.
- Exposure to environmental toxins.
Probiotics and prebiotics work together to maintain a healthy digestive system. Because probiotic bacteria are often eliminated in the gut, prebiotic foods are needed to ensure their survival. Beneficial bacteria needs to be supplied with the correct nourishment in order to thrive. Scientific research regarding the benefits of probiotics potential for preventing and treating health conditions is still in its early stages.
Benefits of prebiotics
Prebiotics – indigestible carbohydrates – are found in a variety of plant foods as well as saliva and breast milk. They create balance in gut flora by promoting beneficial probiotic microorganisms to grow and multiply and preventing the growth of harmful bacteria. Sources or prebiotics include soybeans, asparagus, artichokes, garlic, tomatoes, greens, legumes, raw oats, bananas, berries, unrefined wheat and barley.
Benefits of probiotics
Benefits attributed to these live micro-organisms include aiding digestion, fighting off harmful bacteria, making nutrients available for your to use and keeping the bowels functioning.
Probiotics are available in the form of foods and dietary supplements such as tablets and powders. Other sources include probiotic yoghurts, fermented and unfermented milk, miso, tempeh, and some juices and soy beverages.
While probiotics have been shown to help those with infectious diarrhea, little scientific evidence exists as to their benefits for healthy people In short, if you are eating a healthy mixed diet with lots of vegetables, your digestive system is likely to function well without the need to take specific probiotic supplements. Foods with probiotic properties may, however, assist when people have been ill or have been taking antibiotics.
For more information regarding probiotics, prebiotics and gut health click on the links below.