Probiotics, fermented foods and your gut
The secrets to probiotics and your health in 5 minutes
When most people think about the gut, they think about digestion. However, the gut does so much more than that. In fact, it has been called the "super-organism" or "the second brain." The gut is home to trillions of microorganisms, which play a vital role in keeping us healthy. These microbes help to break down food, produce vitamins and minerals, and protect us from dangerous pathogens. They also help to regulate our mood and keep our immune system functioning properly. In other words, our gut health is essential to our overall health and well-being. So how can we keep our gut healthy? A lot of women I work with ask me about the benefits of probiotics, so if you want to learn more about this, keep on reading…
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for our health, especially our digestive system. We usually think of these as germs that cause diseases. However, your body is full of both good and bad bacteria. Probiotics are often called "good" or "helpful" bacteria because they help keep your gut healthy.
Probiotics are meant to help correct dysbiosis- a condition where the natural balance of bacteria in your gut is disrupted by an illness or antibiotic or other treatments. This can lead to digestive problems, skin issues, and even mood disorders. Probiotics can help by restoring the balance of good bacteria in your gut which is important to your gut health and also your metabolism, immune and endocrine systems and even mental health.
What do probiotics do?
The bacteria in our guts are actually pretty cool! They break down fibre and resistant starches into some helpful by-products, called short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). They act as fuel for the cells in the bowel lining keeping it healthy. They have a number of health benefits, including reducing inflammation and protecting against cancer cell formation.
One of the most important functions of the intestine is to act as a barrier between the contents of the gut and the rest of the body. This barrier is semi-permeable, meaning that it allows certain molecules to pass through while keeping others out. SCFAs play a key role in maintaining the integrity of this barrier. SCFAs are produced by bacterial fermentation of dietary fibre and are then absorbed by the intestine. They help to keep the junction between cells tight, thus preventing the passage of harmful bacteria and toxins.
Gut microorganisms are responsible for regulating many functions including metabolism, endocrine regulation and immune response. It is not entirely understood how this happens but it's still important because there could be potential medical benefits if we knew more about them!
Are all probiotics similar?
Probiotics are described first by genus, then species and then by strain (i.e. Bifidobacterium infantis 35624). There are significant differences in their functions even at the strain level; therefore, for example, only because this specific strain (Bifidobacterium infantis 35624) was shown to benefit people with IBS, it does not mean that all other Bifidobacterium strains will have the same effect. Therefore, it is difficult to interpret meta-analysis that combine studies using different probiotic products, because you are not comparing like for like. The best option we have at the moment is look at studies on specific probiotics and whether they show any evidence of positive benefits.
Do fermented foods contain probiotics?
The quick answer to this question is no – fermented foods are generally not sources of probiotics. Microorganisms that live in fermented products such as kefir, kombucha and sauerkraut vary wildly depending on where and how they’re produced, therefore, they generally do not meet the criteria for the title of probiotics. Some have been shown to be beneficial while others may not provide any health benefits at all! If you love food that is tangy, savoury, and slightly acidic, then you may be keen to add fermented foods into your diet even without the certainty of health benefits. They are made by allowing bacteria and yeasts to break down the carbohydrates and sugars in the food, which creates lactic acid. This process not only gives fermented foods their characteristic flavour, but it also makes them more easy to tolerate for people who have difficulty digesting unfermented foods. For example, sourdough bread and fermented diary products like kefir and yoghurt are often better tolerated than their unfermented counterparts. So if you tend to have difficulty digesting regular yeast bread or milk, then you may want to give fermented versions a try. You may be pleasantly surprised by how delicious they can be!
In addition to improved digestibility and the potential benefit of live microorganisms within, fermented foods contain more vitamins (esp. B12 and folate). If you don’t usually have fermented foods in your diet and want to change this, do so slowly! Too much too quickly can make you experience unpleasant digestive symptoms, especially gassiness and bloating.
Five things to consider if you want to improve your gut health:
- Start from your diet. If you can, aim for 30g of fibre each day and make sure you are having as much variety as possible
- The foods that are often are talked about as ‘bad for IBS’ can be very healthy for our gut microbes, so do not exclude anything unnecessarily.
- Adding fermented foods as part of a balanced diet is only worth it if you enjoy these foods.
- If you want to manage a specific condition, discuss with your doctor or a dietitian as there may be a specific probiotic product with good evidence for effectiveness available.
- There is growing evidence that probiotics are not risk-free and can cause harm for some people, therefore it is best to discuss the risks and benefits with a health professional before taking.