Probiotics: there’s more to it than gut instinct

EVERY human gut contains trillions of bacteria: it’s a startling figure, but here’s another that is just as arresting — the probiotic market, aimed at maintaining a healthy gut, is worth a whopping €25 billion worldwide. 

And it’s expected to increase by as much as 20% in the next five years.

Keeping the so-called friendly wild life that lives in the coils of our intestines healthy is a huge industry, but be warned: a new study has found the ‘good’ bacteria in many probiotic drinks doesn’t ever reach the small intestine.

Researchers at University College London tested eight probiotic drinks and found just three of them aided digestion.

“Just swallowing them is no good if the stomach then kills everything,” explains study author Dr Simon Gaisford. Even when probiotic drinks contain the publicised levels of health-boosting friendly bacteria, those microbes often fail to survive the stomach’s acid on their journey to the small intestine where they can do their work.

That probiotics are good for health, however, is not in doubt. First identified in the early 1900s by Russian biologist and Nobel Prize winner Elie Metchnikoff, several studies have shown certain micro-organisms — in the stomach and intestine — can help digestion and the immune system.

Probiotics can also help restore the balance in the gut after a course of antibiotics or illnesses, such as diarrhoea, explains Orla Walsh, dietician with the Dublin Nutrition Centre.

“The main focus of probiotics has been on gut health, but research is looking into other areas which may be affected by our gut bacteria including obesity,” she said.

Studies have shown Lactobacillus probiotics can help prevent the hospital superbug C Diff. They can also be useful in the treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. But the difficulty, is finding out which ones to take — and when. “Generally speaking,” says Walsh, ” the probiotics with evidence-based benefits include VSL#3, Activia and Aflorex.”

The number of bacteria differs per product, she adds, and effectiveness is influenced by how old the probiotic is and how it is stored. “Research is still trying to understand the best form of delivery, the ideal dose and which probiotics are needed for each health issue,” explains Walsh.

Probiotics also come in many forms — capsules, yoghurt, powders — but Dr Gaisford found those in liquid form perform more efficiently than capsules. The best time to take them, he says, is after waking and on an empty stomach. You are also advised to wait at least ten minutes before eating as this reduces the risk that the ‘good’ bacteria will be upset by stomach fluids.

Of course probiotics occur naturally, too, and one of the best sources is live-cultured yoghurt. Other natural sources include the fermented dairy drink kefir, miso soup, the fermented tea Kombucha, and, unlikely as it may sound, sauerkraut, which is also rich in vitamins.


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