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Probiotics – 13 things you REALLY need to know

You’ve probably heard that you need to take probiotics for gut health, but do you know how to get them, or what they even do? Nor did we, so we created this guide to help

Despite the recent hype around probiotics and TV programmes such as Trust me I’m a Doctor highlighting the benefits of taking them, a recent survey by nutrition company Healthspan found that there is still a great deal of confusion around probiotics. That’s why we have put together this guide.

They affect every part of your body

How can so many functions of the body depend on one part – our intestines? The collection of bacteria living in and on our body has been dubbed the ‘microbiome’ and consists of about 100 trillion bacterial cells, the highest concentration of which is in your gut.  In scientific circles, having a wide diversity of these bugs is being increasingly understood as essential to many aspects of health and it’s probiotic foods and supplements that help you get these healthy bacteria. In 2014, a landmark study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation from New York University said: ‘The composition of the microbiome and its activities are involved in most, if not all, of the biological processes that constitute human health and disease.’  Other peer-reviewed studies have linked gut bacteria to immunity, skin health, Irritable Bowel Disease (IBS) and even autism.

The composition of the microbiome and its activities are involved in most, if not all, of the biological processes that constitute human health and disease

Bad bacteria can make you fat
Bad bacteria can lead to weight issues

Many of us have a depleted microbiome to begin with because we are eating a poor diet that’s high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, processed foods and artificial sweeteners or antibiotics have wiped out some of our beneficial bacteria. In fact, just one course of antibiotics can leave your gut bacteria weaker for up to four years.   What does that mean for weight? If our microbiome doesn’t contain enough friendly species of bacteria we may extract more calories from the foods we do eat, leading to weight gain, whatever our diet. Moreover, bacteria interact with hormones in our guts that regulate appetite, such as leptin and ghrelin.



Bacteria can affect the brain too

An optimal bacteria balance is also fundamental to the functioning of the enteric nervous system –  also known as the second brain – which is located in the gut. This is responsible for producing chemicals that affect our mood (hence ‘gut feelings’) such as serotonin – 95 per cent of which is produced in the bowels. It’s no surprise then that research is now linking the traditional dietary practice of fermenting foods (see below) to positive mental health. When researchers at McMaster University in Canada replaced the gut bacteria of anxious mice with bacteria from more fearless mice, they found that anxiety levels in the first group reduced.

Bacteria in your gut can affect the skin on your face

And the skin

Probiotics and friendly bacteria are now being put into creams and sprays to treat skin conditions such as eczema and acne. There are about 100,000 bacteria per square centimetre on the surface of our skin and these are made up to 200-300 different types of bacteria. People with healthy skin have higher levels of protective bacteria known as S. epidermis and S. hominis while those with eczema have higher levels of a bacteria called S. aureus associated with eczema, scientists have found. Experts are now researching creams enriched with this healthy bacteria in the treatment of eczema with positive results. In a study reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine, scientists isolated samples of the protective  bacteria and mixed them into a cream that they then rubbed onto the arms of five volunteers with eczema.  This then drastically reduced the levels of S. aureus in their skins.

Sugar can wreak havoc on good bacteria

Of the odd 100 trillion bacteria living in our gut, the ideal balance is 85 per cent good to 15 per cent bad. But this balance can be upset by caffeine, processed foods, stress, antibiotic courses and other medication such as long-term use of steroids. Plus as we age, the natural decrease in our stomach acid (essential for the growth of good bacteria) enables bad bacteria to take a greater hold. The main culprit however is too much sugar. ‘Bad bacteria feed off refined carbohydrates and sugar, which is why so many people’s guts are currently such a mess,’ says nutritionist Robert Hobson. Symptoms of overgrowth of bad bacteria include anything from food intolerances to chronic fatigue, auto-immune diseases and even skin disorders such as eczema and psoriasis. ‘When we start to repopulate the gut with good bacteria WE often see symptoms alleviated,’ he says.

They’ve been consumed for thousands of years

Probiotics are live strains of bacteria and other live microorganisms including yeasts. When taken in sufficient quantities they have a positive health benefit hence the terms you hear in the health press such as ‘good’ and ‘beneficial’ bacteria. Probiotics have been consumed for thousands of years in foods (see below)  and are now widely available in capsules and dairy products.

They’re abundant in fermented foods

Fermented foods pack a powerful punch because their natural probiotic content is essential for keeping our digestive tract in optimum health.

Good bacteria is found in fermented foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut and kimchi

Fermentation has been a part of diets around the world since ancient times, from kimchi – fermented vegetables eaten three times a day in Korea – to northern Europe’s sauerkraut to Indian chutneys to fermented soya beans in Japan, eaten as miso, natto, soy sauce and tempeh (the Japanese also have amikaze, a naturally sweet food made with fermented grains) to yoghurt. Kefir – a fermented milk drink that is super-high in good bacteria – was originally preserved in goatskin pouches by shepherds in the mountains of Eastern Europe. In probiotic terms, these foods are the richest sources.

Until 100 years ago, many of the foods we ate were fermented in some way and this made it easier to the keep up the balance of good bacteria in our bodies. In evolutionary terms 100 years is not much. We’ve been eating fermented foods for thousands of years, so our bodies have evolved to thrive on this kind of diet. Indeed, the New York Times recently named fermented foods as one of the biggest emerging food trends. It coincides with the surge in interest in ‘paleo’ (or ‘caveman’) eating focusing on food available to our ancient ancestors.

Not all live yoghurts are the same in probiotic terms

Yoghurt is full of probiotics but some more so than others

By definition and law, yoghurt has to contain certain levels of healthy bacteria. But premium (more expensive yoghurts will contain more. Rob Hobson explains yoghurts labeled ‘probiotic yoghurt’ will also contain probiotic strains added, in addition to the other bacteria.

You also need prebiotics that feed the good bacteria

Some vegetables and fruits known as probiotics have extra punch in feeding good bacteria and these include bananas, Jersualem artichokes, asparagus, fennel, garlic, cold potatoes (not hot!), garlic, fennel, apples, pak choi, leeks and onions. Eat them whenever you fancy.  If you don’t normally eat these, introduce and build them up gradually to avoid wind.

When it comes to supplements – strain matters

Probiotics come from foods ands supplements and contain favourable bacterias that keep your micobiome healthy. But good bacteria includes various strains and three quarters of those surveyed in the Healthspan research revealed they do not understand the different strains of probiotics that they need to support their health, even though seventy per cent said they take them to support their immunity. While the families of good bacteria include the names we know such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, within these are strains that all have specific jobs and may be called by letters or numbers or combinations or both, such as Lactobacillus DDS-1 or bifidobacterium longum.

Most probiotics are best taken in the morning with food

‘No one strain or strain combination has all the health benefits you need’, says GP and natural health expert Dr Sarah Brewer. ‘You have to have the right strain or strain combination for the job as they all do different things.’ Think of strains as members of a family that all have different talents. This is an area still in its infancy and currently, there is no list of recommended strains for specific benefits, says Dr Brewer.

You need A LOT if you’re taking a pill

Ten million and above per serving is considered the minimum you should look for in a probiotic pill, says nutritionist Robert Hobson. But more is better. Healthspan’s new Super-Pro 50 is an advanced probiotic with over 50 billion friendly bacteria from four well-researched strains as well as containing calcium, vitamin D3 and B6 all formulated to support digestive health, immunity and energy metabolism.

‘Diet alone cannot provide us with the right strains and levels of live bacteria we need to maintain a healthy microbiome,’ says Hobson. ‘Plus, we need more than one strain of bacteria for individual health needs. The new Healthspan SuperPro 50 has an advanced blend of lactobacillus acidophilus, lactobacillus planetarium and two strains of Bifidobacterium lactis which is shown to decline as we age.’


Supplements are best taken at breakfast

‘Take your probiotics at breakfast,’ suggests Rob Hobson. ‘This has been shown to be the time when bacteria have the greatest chances of survival through the acidic conditions of the gut.’ When you take them, try and avoid foods that are too acidic such as soft drinks and juices, very hot foods or alcoholic drinks. Such foods can kill microbes and interfere with the benefits of your probiotic supplement.

A supplement course is best after antibiotics

Antibiotics are specifically designed to treat bacterial infections in our bodies. But these medicines can’t differentiate between good and bad bacteria in the gut so they disrupt the overall balance within the gut macrobiota.  Although most of the organisms within the macrobiota regenerate over time, this can take many weeks and sometimes months.  Therefore if you need to take a course of antibiotics , taking a supplement such as Healthspan Superpro50 which contains the right strains of friendly live bacteria needed to help replenish what has been destroyed by taking antibiotics. ‘It’s important to begin taking probiotics from the moment you start antibiotics and continue for two weeks after finishing the course,’ says Dr Arthur Ouwehand, a professor of microbiology at the Turku University of Finland.

MORE: 6 supplement mistakes even smart women make

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