You’ve no doubt heard a lot about probiotics, the good bacteria in our guts. Now experts are talking about prebiotics – foods that feed our friendly bugs. Could they help this writer’s trapped wind?
You’ve no doubt heard plenty about probiotics in the last 12 months – supplements of friendly bacteria for our gut that it’s claimed could help everything from mood to digestion.
But now, researchers are claiming that prebiotics – foods that feed the healthy bacteria already in our guts – are even more essential, especially for symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) such as bloating, abdominal cramping, diarrhoea, constipation and trapped wind
Chick peas, which I adore, seemed to turn me into a human wind turbine
Although I wasn’t one of the 12 million Brits that suffered with symptoms that could be classed as full blown IBS – my bowel movements were like clockwork and I rarely got bloated – I did have this strange trapped wind problem whenever I ate certain foods.
The offending foods had no pattern or association. Courgettes always gave good flatulence. Prawns had a similar effect. Chick peas, which I adore, seemed to turn me into a human wind turbine. So my beloved hummus was off the menu.
Occasionally that embarrassing problem came with a gnawing abdominal cramping, that while not being debilitating, was annoying, especially as it always seemed to hit me after lunch at work. It was hardly a professional accompaniment to a Powerpoint presentation.
Those symptoms alone weren’t enough to get me to the doctor. But they were sufficiently embarrassing to make me jump at the chance to test out a new supplement that, among other things, claimed it would work on my gut bacteria to help wind problems in as little as seven days. All I had to do was take a little sachet of white powder in a cup of water or tea. Hello. Sign me up.
It was confusing though. I took high doses of the best probiotics I could afford, downing them religiously every morning with my fruit smoothie. And yet, my symptoms remained. I also had this other problem. Despite exercising regularly, eating healthily and taking other supplements too including vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, I still seemed susceptible to every infection going.
What’s really going on in your gut?
What few of us know is that around 60 per cent of our immune system lies within our gut. That means that over half of our ability to fight disease is governed by our gut microbiota, the population of microbes or bacteria that grow in our lower intestine.
60 per cent of our immune system lies within our gut
You’ve probably heard of ‘good bacteria’ that comes from probiotic foods such as sauerkraut, kefir (fermented milk), kombucha (fermented tea) and natural yoghurt as well as probiotic supplements. They came in species with latin names such as bifidum and lactobacilli.
The explosion of interest in probiotics and gut health in the last 12 months has come as a result of researchers linking our gut microbiota not only to IBS and our immune system, but also to our mood (they claim a large proportion of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, which is boosted by antidepressant medication is made in our guts), our risk of obesity, our sleep patterns and even autism in children.
What’s causing the wind and cramps?
We’re born with an environment of good bacteria, usually inherited from our mothers. But stress, antibiotics, fatty, sugary foods and other environmental factors can work to kill off some of our good bacteria, leaving the hardier, but not-so-good species to proliferate, explains Dr Anthony Hobson, a gastroenterologist and founder of The Functional Gut Clinic
‘In your lower bowel or colon you have lots of bacterial species and they help to break down all the food we can’t digest properly,’ Dr Hobson says.
‘Think of your gut microbiome as a giant fish tank and you’ve got lots and lots of different species of fish and different types of foods that each different species will like in order to grow,’ Dr Hobson explains.
‘If you don’t get enough of the right and varied foods into the tank, if you’re under a lot of stress, eat a lot of sugar or follow faddish low-carb, high protein diets, some of the fish (ie good bacteria) will die and the ones that survive will be the more hardy ones that might not be the healthiest ones.
‘These hardier species might over ferment food because they can exist in more extreme conditions and might produce up to ten times more gas than other species – for the same food going into the system,’ says Dr Hobson.
So, if Dr Hobson is right, if my gut has more of these hardy bacteria, the foods I am eating could be being over fermented by them, causing me wind. Moreover, if I wasn’t feeding the good bacteria there, all the probiotic supplements I was taking probably wouldn’t work because they weren’t getting adequate food to grow.
‘When you starve the good bacteria, the bad bacteria can grow and this can result in excessive gas production in the lower bowel which produces wind, flatulence, bloating and cramping,’ says Dr Hobson.
The fermenting fruit and gas factor
My diet is super healthy – well, so I think. Lots of vegetables, high quality proteins, legumes and beans and heaps – I mean heaps – of fruit. I had about two apples, five clementines and about three oranges daily, along with a punnet of berries – I had a vegetable, fruit and protein smoothie every morning.
It turns out that fruit consumption could be part of my gas problem. ‘Most of us can only digest about 25 grams of fruit sugar or fructose,’ says Dr Hobson. ‘Big fruit smoothies full of high fructose fruits such as mango and watermelon or dried fruits such as apricots are high in fructose,’ he says.
It turns out that fruit consumption could be part of my gas problem
‘But you can’t actually digest that fructose and it therefore gets into the large bowel. There, once bacteria get hold of fruit sugar they have a bit of a party, the fruit sugar ferments and you end up with boating, cramping, wind and potentially more bowel movements.’
Dr Hobson suggests I use an app such as That Sugar App from the experts at Norwich University to track the amount of fruit sugar I am eating each day. It’s eye opening. In one clementine alone, there are seven grams of sugar in 150 grams of blueberries 14.7 grams of sugar. It was clear, the fruit in my diet wasn’t helping my wind problem.
Probiotics VS Prebiotics
But there was more I could do to improve the situation than sort my fruit problem. I could take prebiotics. Put simply, while probiotics are the bugs in our tummies, prebiotics are the food for those bugs, Dr Hobson explains. ‘Prebiotics are like feeding the fish in the tank, probiotics are the fish.
‘By taking probiotic foods and supplements you’re introducing new fish species into the tank, that is new bacteria species into your gut, and you can’t really predict what is going to happen when they get there. ‘If you’re taking a probiotic as a swallowed capsule, they have to go through the stomach, get to the lower colon, dissolve in the right place, stick to the gut wall, like the environment and then grow,’ says Dr Hobson.
‘With the probiotic explosion in the last year, the research hasn’t been as convincing as everyone thought and experts like myself are now asking, ‘Instead of constantly introducing new bacteria into the colon, why don’t we feed what is already there properly?’
That’s where prebiotics come in. These are complex carbohydrates found in a variety of foods and supplements that naturally feed the good types of bacteria in the gut such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. ‘Prebiotic foods include brown bread, brown rice, wild rice, linseeds, chia seeds, most fruits particularly bananas and vegetables, particularly artichokes and chicory, onions and garlic,’ says Dr Hobson.
‘Prebiotics feed and increase the good bacteria in the gut, without feeding the bad.’ They’re also resistant to heat, oxygen, the body’s enzymes and acids and are therefore not destroyed, digested or absorbed as they travel through the digestive system.’
Unlike probiotics which can be affected by the digestion process and destroyed prebiotics can’t, they reach the colon intact and unadulterated
That means prebiotics reach the lower part of the intestine – where the hungry microorganisms live – and feed the good bacteria there, helping them grow and multiply. It’s how they can help decrease the fermentation that could be causing my wind.
‘Unlike probiotics which can be affected by the digestion process and destroyed, prebiotics can’t, they reach the colon intact and unadulterated,’ says Dr Hobson. ‘That means they can feed the good bacteria already there, helping them proliferate, helping general digestive and immune health.’
The next phase of gut bacteria supplements is prebiotics. ‘Companies are now isolating the prebiotic fibres from foods such as chicory or artichoke, but they’re not always very easy to tolerate for the body,’ says Dr Hobson.
One of the most researched of these is Bimuno, a unique prebiotic food supplement that is the product of ongoing research and development at the University of Reading’s Food Microbial Sciences Unit. Bimuno has been the subject of numerous scientific studies that show a number of health effects one of which is to reduce the effects of fermentation in the gut and help reduce IBS symptoms such as wind and cramping.
The studies show it can help improve immune health, reset natural bacteria, feeding the friendly species already in your large intestine (gut) and stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria.
Made by converting the natural sugars in dairy milk into a unique prebiotic carbohydrate complex called Beta-galactooligosaccharide, it comes in three varieties: a daily powder sachet, Bimuno Daily, £11.99 which you can use in tea or water or sprinkle it on your breakfast, a chewable pastille Ibaid £11.99 (take two a day) or in a specific formulation Travelaid, £11.99 to avoid traveller’s diarrhoea (another thing it is proven to help).
Studies have shown that with daily use, most Bimuno users experience a significant increase in their levels of health gut bacteria within just seven days.
‘And by encouraging levels of friendly bacteria in the gut, there are less resources and space for bad bacteria to grow,’ says Dr Hobson. ‘It’s the one supplement I have seen that seems to strike a balance of being able to provide real gut benefits without the side effects.’
Prebiotics and sleep
Along with improved immunity and positive effects on the symptoms of IBS, taking prebiotics might even affect those with disturbed sleep. In a BBC documentary last spring called The Truth About Sleep, Dr Michael Mosley discussed how his sleep patterns had improved after taking Bimuno Daily in the evening after going to sleep.
Though no clinical investigations have been done to assess the effect of taking prebiotics and sleep, the programme went on to explain the impact of improving fibre intake and the positive effect this has on the good bacteria in your gut and inferred that this may improve sleep patterns.
Could a prebiotic help trapped wind?
I tried Bimuno, after reading the impressive research and one thing was for certain, things got a little worse before they got better. In the first few days I had a lot of stomach gurgling and tummy noises of one sort or another and even increased wind.
But Dr Hobson assured me this was my body getting used to the effects of Bimuno on my gut, and a sign it was working. It was super simple to use and didn’t change the taste of my tea or water at all, and the single sachet was easy to carry around in my handbag.
Researchers are claiming that prebiotics are even more essential, especially for symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) such as bloating, abdominal cramping, diarrhoea, constipation and trapped wind
Ten days in, I decided to gently test the effects and ate a chick pea salad. Nothing. Then next day I ate some prawns. Again, nothing. Then I tried some courgettes. Still nothing. To be honest I didn’t expect much from a single sachet of powder taken for just ten days, but I couldn’t argue with these effects.
Now, a month later, I don’t get a hint of wind after eating unless I have had something with milk in it, which I now know to avoid. The fact that Bimuno comes from milk sugars doesn’t affect me and shouldn’t affect those with lactose intolerances because the lactose content found in all Bimuno products is well below that considered safe, by the British Dietetic Association (– 12 g/day) and the European Food Safety Authority (– 13g/day).
Now, I can eat just about anything that doesn’t contain milk and I literally get zero wind. It’s nothing short of miraculous. Thankfully, there is no problem in staying on Bimuno indefinitely, which I’ll certainly be doing. Now that my future contains hummus I couldn’t be happier.
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