Prebiotics

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The benefits of gut health go beyond digestion

The benefits of gut health go beyond digestion

The important role of the gut

Diet, exercise and sleep are key to good health and the prevention of disease.  The health of your gut is inextricably linked to the quality of your diet, which impacts on digestion. Besides this, research is beginning to identify how your gut may also be linked to immunity, sleep, mental health (stress, depression) and obesity, all of which can affect your health in a multitude of ways (1).

The initiative, ‘Love Your Gut Week’, starts on the 17thSeptember (2018) and highlights the importance of our digestive system to good health.

What is the microbiome?

The term ‘microbiome’ refers to the collection of around 100 trillion microbes that live in and on our body, most of which are found in the gut.  An army of microbes (including bacteria) colonise the body even before we’re born to form a protective barrier that defends against foreign invaders harmful to our health.

Your microbiome is unique like a fingerprint

Your microbiome is unique like a fingerprint reacting to the world both around and within you.  The microbes you cultivate make up the unique diversity of your microbiome. The bacteria in your gut help maintain the efficiency of your digestive system.  These bacteria also help to synthesise vitamin D, K, B12, folic acid and thiamine as well as assisting in the digestion of polyphenol compounds shown to protect the body against disease.  Gut bacteria also produce short chain fatty acids that supply energy to the cells of your colon and have been shown to play a key role in the maintenance of health and prevention of disease (2).

What can impact on the ‘health’ of your microbiome?

 Diet and lifestyle choices can impact on the diversity of bacteria found in your gut.  The ‘typical’ Western diet is characterised by an overconsumption of foods high in ‘added sugars’ and ‘bad’ fats. The impact of overeating and a lack of exercise has led to an overweight nation although the complexities of weight management are not as simple as calories in and calories out.

Being overweight is a risk factor for many diseases and the physiological effects it triggers such as inflammation are now widely recognised as being a contributory factor.  It’s often suggested that a diet overloaded with sugar and ‘bad’ fats encourages the growth of bad bacteria, but these effects don’t seem to be that clear cut. Another more straightforward explanation is that people who eat an unhealthy diet are less likely to eat the foods that support an environment that allows good bacteria to thrive such as vegetables, wholegrains and other high-fibre foods.

Five strategies to support the health of your microbiome

Whilst the overall quality of your diet can impact on the health of your gut, certain foods have been shown to be particularly beneficial in supporting the diversity of bacteria that live there.  Lifestyle factors and the use of medication have also been shown to impact on your microbiome.

1. Don’t underestimate the effects of stress

Stress is fast becoming a common side-effect of our modern lifestyle.  We all experience stress, sometimes on a daily basis, but the effects are usually short lived.  Problems can arise when stress becomes chronic, not only impacting on mental health but triggering inflammation within the body (3).  Stress can also increase the demand for certain nutrients such as the B vitamins and magnesium as well as influencing food choices that can result in a failure of the diet to provide everything the body needs.

Feeling ‘butterflies’ in your stomach or nausea are common symptoms of stress and illustrate how the brain is closely linked to the gut.  Sadness, happiness and anger are a few examples of the emotions that can affect the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is sensitive to such emotions.  In some cases, psychology combines with physical factors to cause pain and bowel symptoms that characterise conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (4).  Psychosocial factors such as stress can influence the actual physiology of the gut, affecting movement and contractions of the GI tract, increasing inflammation and even making you more perceptible to infection (5).

The link between the gut and brain is referred to as the gut-brain axis and the association with gut bacteria is a new area of research.  Studies are beginning to unveil the potential impact this relationship between the gut and brain has on the microbiome.  Mental health is just one area of research and stress has been shown to alter the diversity of gut bacteria (6). These changes also appear to be amplified when stress is more severe or prolonged. In this regard, the concept of psychobiotics is being developed and refined to find ways of targeting the microbiota to help with mental health outcomes

Don’t dismiss the impact stress has on the body.  Addressing your mental health is just as important as the food you eat, exercise you take and sleep you get, all of which are intertwined.  Try exploring techniques such as meditation that has been proven to help with stress. There are many apps available that can help to teach you this practice.

2. Eat prebiotic foods in your diet

Certain fibres in foods are indigestible and commonly referred to as prebiotics.  Gut bacteria feed of these fibres, helping them to flourish and process by which they break them down (fermentation), produces short chain fatty acids.

The different types are prebiotic foods include:

  • Onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus and bananas contain inulin and fructooligosaccharides that act as prebiotics.
  • Oats and barley contain beta-glucans that act as prebiotics.
  • Starchy foods such as pasta, rice and potatoes form resistant starches (resistant to digestive enzymes) once they’ve been cooked and then cooled. Resistant starches act as prebiotics.

3. Watch your medication

Many people rely on the long-term use of medication to help manage the symptoms of their health condition. Aspirin and ibuprofen are types of Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDS) commonly used to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, but these drugs have been shown to reduce levels of good bacteria in the gut (7).

Other medications such as antibiotics are prescribed as a short course to support the body’s ability to fight infection.  These drugs are not a friend of gut bacteria as they can wipe out swathes of both good and bad.  In certain cases, such as severe bacterial infections, they’re required to help the body recover but are of no use in fighting viral infections such as colds or flu.

Using probiotics alongside certain medications such as NSAIDS or after a course of antibiotics can help to re-balance your microbiome.

Another interesting issue surrounding antibiotics is their extensive use in the farming of food animals.  The issue is a topic of debate but eating less meat and choosing better quality meat may not only be better for your health but reduce the transmission of antibiotics through the food chain.

4. Include probiotic foods in your diet

Strains of bacteria that have been shown to have a positive health benefit are referred to as probiotics.  Bacteria from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium family are some of the most widely researched strains.  One of the most common probiotic foods is live yoghurt, which contains strains such as Lactobacillus Acidophilus and Lactobacillus Casei.  These strains are also found in yoghurt ‘shot’ drinks that have become very popular. When you’re choosing live yoghurt or yoghurt products try opting for those that are low in sugar.

Fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir and miso also contain strains of bacteria that can support good gut health. These foods are now widely available in most supermarkets.

5. Take a probiotic supplement

Probiotic supplements offer a way of delivering large doses of specific bacteria to the gut.  Stick to preparations that contain well researched strains such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium in a dose of at least 10 billion bacteria per serving.  To help with their transit to the gut, avoid taking with hot food and drinks or alcohol that can destroy them.

As the research linking gut bacteria to health and disease outcomes evolves, so does the potential role of probiotics supplements.  Their use and efficacy have recently come under scrutiny, but there’s still plenty of good quality research that points towards their beneficial role in health.

Prevention and treatment of diarrhoea

Bacterial strains such as Lactobacillus Rhamnosus and Lactobacillus Casei have been widely researched for their ability to prevent and reduce the severity of diarrhoea.  Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that taking probiotics helped reduce the risk of diarrhoea associated with antibiotic use by 42% (8).  Further research published in the Lancet showed that probiotics helped to reduce the risk of travellers’ diarrhoea by 8% and from all other causes in adults by 26% (9).

Immunity

The cells found in the gut are thought to make up almost 70% of the entire immune system, so it makes sense that it’s inextricably linked to immunity.  Research has shown how probiotic supplements containing certain strains can promote the production of antibodies. The same strains have also been shown to stimulate the activity of immune cells such as natural killer cells and T-lymphocytes that help to regulate immune responses.

Research has shown how probiotic supplements may prove beneficial for upper respiratory tract infections such as colds, coughs and flu. Research published in the British Medical Journal found that children who regularly took probiotics (Lactobacillus GG) had 19% fewer infectious diseases over three months compared with those that didn’t (10).

Obesity

This is new area of research and the question of whether obesity is linked to gut bacteria is not yet answered.  Data suggests that the composition of bacteria in the gut differs between people who are obese and those that are lean (11).  It’s also been shown that the typical Western-style diet rich in fat and refined carbohydrates may even increase the strains of bacteria linked to obesity (12).  Research has provided several potential reasons why the diversity of bacteria in the gut may be linked to obesity.  Certain bacteria are involved in the digestion of carbohydrates and fats (13), whilst others have the potential to increase inflammation in the body (14). Other may impact on the production of hormones that influence appetite (15).

Whilst in its early stage, this research highlights the future potential for probiotic supplements as part of personalised nutrition guidance to help in the fight against obesity.

Essential steps to good gut health

The bacteria in your gut play a role in health that’s essential to life.  New research not only helps to confirm this but is exploring the many benefits that go beyond digestion. Diet and lifestyle can both influence the diversity of bacteria in your gut and this can have a negative impact on your health.  Following a healthy balanced diet will help to maintain the health of your gut and the bacteria that reside in it as will addressing lifestyle factors such as stress. Research into the use of probiotic supplements is ever evolving but they can provide a useful way to help maintain the balance of bacteria in your gut.

Healthy gut plan

  1. Maintain a balanced diet and try to avoid foods high in sugar and ‘bad’ fats.
  2. Eat wide variety of plant-foods such as vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains that are high in fibre and support efficient digestion.
  3. Include prebiotic foods in your diet – onions, garlic, bananas, oats, barley.
  4. Include probiotic foods in your diet – live yoghurt, kimchi, kefir and miso.
  5. Use relaxation techniques to address the issue of stress.
  6. Factor the use of medication into your diet and the effect on gut bacteria.
  7. Take a probiotic supplement that includes strains such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium in a dose of at least 10 billion bacteria.

 

References

  1. https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24388214
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3341031/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4202343/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15740474
  6. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352289515300370
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26482265
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22570464
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16728323
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11387176
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27648960
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28199845
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15505215
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23985870
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27616451/

 

 

 

Time to join the culture club – your guide to probiotics

Time to join the culture club – your guide to probiotics

 

Time to join the culture club (download PDF here The culture club)

So, you’re clean eating, gluten free, fasting, eating avocados like their going out of fashion, chugging down green juices with the latest wonder powders and using coconut oil to cook and apply to every part of the body from top to toe to achieve an enviable state of health and wellness.  But health trends come and go, and whether they stand the test of time is usually based on popularity over real results.

One area of health that has always been popular is the gut and the one thing we know for sure is that an efficient gut equals good health.  Probiotics have been hip for a while now and this is one trend with a lot of research to back up the claims. The discovery of how to sequence the bacteria that live in the gut has widened this area of research and allowed scientists to explore it in a similar way to DNA 20 years ago.

 


“One area of health that has always been popular is the gut and the one thing we know for sure is that an efficient gut equals good health”


 

Good digestion insures that your body can process foods efficiently and deliver all the essential nutrients without bloating or other digestive complaints that can impact on how you feel day-to-day and the role of gut bacteria in this context is well established.  But these clever microbes are not just about good digestion and new exciting research is drawing associations between the microbiome and areas of healthy you may never have considered before. 

 

What’s the deal with bacteria?

The body is full of bugs that make up one of the most complex ecosystems in the world with over 400 different species living in the gut.  Generally, these bugs are not harmful and many have a beneficial role to play in the body. 

Gut bacteria are essential in the process of breaking down food to extract nutrients that are required for our survival.  Bacteria help to synthesize certain vitamins including B12, folic acid and thiamin that are required for energy metabolism, red blood cell production and maintaining a healthy nervous system.   These microbes also teach our immune systems to recognize foreign invaders and produce anti-inflammatory compounds that fight off disease-causing bacteria.  Clever stuff.

 


“Gut bacteria are essential in the process of breaking down food to extract nutrients that are required for our survival”


 

Nurture your own culture club

 The community of bacteria in your gut is specific to you and is referred to as your microbiome.  The diversity of your microbiome is especially important to help maintain a healthy gut as bad bacteria are limited and tightly controlled by the good variety.  If your diet is unhealthy and rich in sugary or processed foods then there’s a chance that the good bacteria in your gut will become weakened, impacting on health as you provide an all-you-can-eat buffet for bad bugs to thrive on and take over.   A buildup of bad bacteria may result in a number of health problems such as food allergies, yeast infections or inflammatory bowel disease. 

 


“A buildup of bad bacteria may result in a number of health problems such as food allergies, yeast infections or inflammatory bowel disease”


 

Interestingly, the trend for carbohydrate free diets could have an impact on the diversity of bacteria in your gut.  A high fat and protein diet is not necessarily the issue as bacteria will find something to live on in the gut but the diversity of bacteria and their activity may change in the absence of carbohydrates.  Like us, bacteria prefer to live on carbohydrates (glucose) and from this they produce short chain fatty acids that are good for your gut.  Once carbohydrates are taken out of the diet, bacteria start to thrive on amino acids that make up proteins, which produces other compounds that are considered more poisonous than beneficial

 

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that contain strains that have been shown to have a positive health benefit.  There seem to be a lot of interesting foods labelled as being probiotics ranging from chocolate through to tea but to get the most benefit you need to look for well researched strains such as Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium with at least 10 billion bacteria per serving.  Some foods such as kimchi are also touted as being a probiotic and although they may have health benefits for your gut the strains they contain (and there are many strains) are often not well researched and so cannot be classed as such.

 


“Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that contain strains that have been shown to have a positive health benefit”


 

How do probiotics benefit health?

One of the key benefits of probiotics is in maintaining good digestive health and research has shown how they can help with common digestive complaints such as diarrhoea and constipation.  Probiotics have also been shown to be of benefit for people suffering with IBS and food intolerances such as lactose intolerance. 

 


“One of the key benefits of probiotics is in maintaining good digestive health and research has shown how they can help with common digestive complaints such as diarrhoea and constipation”


 

Immunity is also a key area of research.  Around 80% of the immune system resides in the gut and studies have shown that probiotics are successful in preventing upper respiratory tract infections (coughs and colds) as well as reducing the infection time.  Probiotics are also essential for anyone that has had to take antibiotics that have an apocalyptic effect on all the bacteria in the gut.   Taking probiotics alongside medication and for a few weeks afterwards should be a common place recommendation to help restore your microbiota.

 

The future of probiotics

Where things get very exciting is in the research that is starting to put science to the concept of that “gut feeling” by exploring the relationship between gut bacteria and how this may impact on behaviour, metabolism and mood via a signaling pathway called the gut-brain axis with early findings suggesting a possible link to conditions such as obesity and depression.

The future of gut bacteria is also fascinating as researchers at Kings College London predict that we may be able to receive individualized probiotic advice relating to the unique diversity of strains that make up our own personal microbiota.  Researchers have commented that it is naive to think that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to probiotics and that in the future.  Metagenomic testing may be able to map your microbiome by sequencing every gene in every living organism in your gut.  This would provide data on the functions of your microbes as well as viruses, fungi, virulent genes and antibiotics resistance.  Understanding this may help link in with the research around the how certain bacteria strains are associated with specific health conditions.

It may also be time to ditch expensive skin care products in place of probiotics to achieve a healthy, clear, glowing complexion.  Whilst the link between skin and gut bacteria is complicated, it has been shown that the health of your microbiome may be a significant player in the quest for healthy skin.  If your gut is overrun with bad bacteria or yeast then this can increase the permeability of the gut, which can result in inflammation as the immune system produces inflammatory cytokines in response to microbial toxins that enter your system.  Inflammation is at the root of skin conditions such as acne and research has shown how probiotic strains such as Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus plantarum may help to regulate the cytokines.  This doesn’t mean you can just pop a probiotic and expect great skin but there is an association with your microbiota.

 

Do we need to take probiotics?

If you have a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet then their maybe no need to invest in a probiotic but there is certainly no harm in taking them daily.  Probiotics are intended to be used in a therapeutic context as they help to deliver a beneficial dose to the gut that you may not be able to achieve by eating foods such as probiotic yoghurt.

 

What is the best way to take probiotics?

This is up to you really.  Probiotics are available in a capsule or tablet form such as Healthspan Super50 Pro (60 capsules for £28.50).  This form of probiotic is freeze-dried and activated on entering the gut. Other sources of probiotic yoghurt and drinks do contain beneficial strains but these are often not in as greater volume as a supplement or with as much variety.  You also need to be aware of the high sugar content of certain probiotic foods as some brands of ‘shot’ drinks have been shown to contain as much as 2 tsp of sugar. Probiotic foods are a good way to help maintain good bacterial levels but to make a real impact on the diversity of your microbiome you need a supplement.  Like all supplements, the key is to take them regularly to get the most benefit and this is even more important with probiotics as you are essentially trying to increase the amount in the gut.

 

What to think about when choosing and taking supplements

 If you’re considering taking a probiotic supplement then there are a few things you should consider when buying and whilst taking them.

  1. To be effective you need to choose a supplement that contains at least 10 million bacteria per serving.   
  2. Don’t take a probiotic supplement with hot food and drinks like tea or coffee as this can lessen the chance of the bacteria getting to your gut unharmed. Give it 30 minutes after taking them before you reach for the teapot.
  3. Alcohol can also render the bacteria in probiotic supplements useless so avoid knocking back with a glass of pinot!
  4. Research suggests that breakfast might be the best time of day as this is when bacteria have the greatest chances of surviving the acidic conditions in the upper part of the gut.
  5. Make sure you check the check the expiry date because once that’s passed there may not be any live bacteria left in the product.
  6. Choose a probiotic that includes a wide variety of strains to get the most benefit.

 

 Download PDF here (The culture club)