Probiotics and prebiotics

Probiotics and Prebiotics blog image

What are probiotics?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines probiotics as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host”.

You are what you eat. Or more accurately, you are what you feed the trillions of bacteria that live in your gut. These organisms that inhabit the lining of your gut create a micro-ecosystem called the microbiome. And though we don’t really notice it’s there, it plays an enormous role in your health and can even affect your mood, behaviour and the ability of your immune system to protect you from infections and viruses.

Not surprisingly, what you feed your microbiome has a big impact on its health. The healthier it is, the healthier you are. The key to a healthy microbiome is nourishing a balance among the nearly 1,000 different species of bacteria in your gut.

Probiotics are beneficial bacterial cultures that have been shown to provide specific health benefits, such as supporting gut and immune health and contributing to the maintenance of a balanced gut microbiome, inhibiting the growth of pathogens. They are also important for the proper functioning of the digestive system and the entire body.

Common modern lifestyle choices such as alcohol consumption, processed food intake and antibiotic use can impact negatively on the levels of our beneficial bacteria, hence the growing interest in the use of probiotic supplements. Therefore, although feeding our bacteria with prebiotics (see below for more information on prebiotics) is important, it just as important to have the right balance of beneficial/friendly bacteria to be fed in the first place, which is why both probiotics and prebiotics are just as important as each other.

Are there any instances I should not take probiotics?

Certain strains of probiotics should be avoided if you currently have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) as it could worsen your symptoms until the infection is under control.

To learn more about SIBO, and particularly if you have IBS, click here.

If you are severely immuno-compromised because of any medications or diseases, including active cancer, chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment, you should consult your doctor prior to supplementing.

If in doubt about taking probiotics, do talk to your healthcare provider.

What are the best probiotic foods?  

  • Yoghurt with added cultures (this includes dairy-free yoghurts too)
  • Fermented foods such as:
    • Kimchi
    • Sauerkraut (I’ve shared my recipe with you below)
    • Kefir
    • Pickles
    • Miso
    • Tempeh
    • Sourdough bread (ideally from a deli, not supermarket-bought)
    • Kombucha

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are classified as the non-digestible food ingredients that probiotics can feed off. I like to think of them as the nutritional compost for your gut microbiome. They help to increase populations of healthy bacteria, aid digestion and enhance production of valuable vitamins.

Prebiotics can be found in carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, and increase the friendly bacteria in your gut.

What are the benefits of prebiotics?

  • Improved immune system function
  • Better cardiovascular health
  • Reduced body fat levels
  • Enhanced cognitive function
  • Improved mood

What are the best prebiotic foods?

  • Chicory root and chicory root coffee
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Leeks
  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Oats
  • Apples
  • Flaxseed
  • Seaweed

Can you get prebiotic supplements?

Yes, you can – inulin (chicory), Fructo-oligo-saccharides (FOS), and Galacto-oligo-saccharides (GOS), but be careful, as these natural substances can increase gas in the digestive system and cause uncomfortable bloating.  It is one of the reasons I don’t put prebiotics in my Just For Tummies probiotic capsules.  I prefer people to get their prebiotics from food.  

I certainly wouldn’t recommend a probiotic that contains a prebiotic, or any stand-alone prebiotic, to someone who has IBS (D) – diarrhoea predominant, or who suffers with uncomfortable bloating.

Are there any other cases where prebiotics should be avoided?

Some people may be sensitive to excess quantities of these fibres if they have SIBO. Prebiotics are generally high FODMAP, and this is why they can aggravate people with SIBO.

High FODMAP foods are not intended to be avoided forever, as in doing so, you can affect the good colonies of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine. These need feeding with prebiotic ‘compost’.

Even if you do not have SIBO, it is wise to build up fibre/ prebiotic intake gradually to avoid any gas or bloating and give your body a chance to adapt to the increased levels of fibres.

As promised earlier, here’s my homemade sauerkraut recipe. Just click on the button below to download it.