Probiotics and Prebiotics: the top ten things you need to know!
The last decade or so has seen a huge step forward in our understanding of the power of the gut (or more specifically the microbes within it: aka the microbiome) and its power in terms of our brains, brain development and our immunity. This is both for us as adults but particularly important for rapidly developing little people.
Did you know for example that as much as 60-70% of your immune system is in your gut?! Did you also know that a baby’s own microbiome starts to build as early as inside the womb and will continue to do so until it stabilises around 2-3yrs old. This will form the base and potentially act as a contributor to lifelong health.
When we’re building a person from scratch, keeping our bodies in balance is even more crucial. Not only to aid conception, but when it comes to pregnancy and the first few years of a little person’s life. Click here for MUCH more detail, but, here are two things that can help build a balanced and diverse microbiome which is what science understands as the ideal basis for a healthy gut:
PROBIOTICS and PREBIOTICS: what are they? What is the difference, where can you find them and most importantly how and can they help you? Here are some need to know points:
I don't know about you, but these terms can be pretty confusing and when it comes to knowing about the supplements/food sources/what’s good and what isn't, it is also a bit of a minefield. So we are just going to break down some of the key elements and how you can use these ‘tools’ in some easy/practical ways to put your gut in the best possible position:
ONE: what is a ‘healthy gut’, what are we trying to ‘achieve’? Now, science is not all the way there yet in terms of our understanding. However, what we do know is that every person’s gut mix looks different, even twins. At this stage our understanding of ‘healthy’ is a diverse mix with no significant imbalances. So, that’s the aim!
TWO: Probiotics: what are they really? these are live microorganisms that are intended to add to the diversity and mixture of those already living in the gut. The World Health Organisation’s definition is: ‘live microorganisms, which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit to the host’. A pretty broad definition, which has its own set of issues, but in a nutshell think of them as ‘beneficial bacteria’ that we need to function in an optimal way.
THREE: Some better known and less known (!) examples of Probiotics: when we think of probiotic foods we probably all think of fermented foods like Sauerkraut, Kefir, Kombucha and Pickles. However, there are others. For example, there is a considerable amount of research suggesting that protein consumption equates to microbial diversity (again diversity is what we want). Pea and Whey protein in particular have been shown to increase Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus (commonly regarded as ‘good guys’) with Pea Protein shown to increase Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFA) within the gut (click here for more on this specifically). What are SCFA? Why are they so important? Another key powerful part of the gut but in a nutshell they have been shown to be a powerful anti-inflammatory properties as well as helping build the gut’s natural lining and filter mechanism. Crucial for making sure nothing that shouldn’t get into the blood stream, slips through. Click here for much more on why SCFA are your friend.
FOUR: Probiotic supplements: what is usually in them? As usual when it comes to supplements there is a wide variety. However, these are generally speaking a mixture of what science understands at this point to be ‘beneficial bacteria’: Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus are the most commonly added to supplements or added to commercially produced foods like formula, yogurts and even skin care! It has become BIG business and commonly justifies a higher price tag….
FIVE: Do they actually work?! Honestly: when it comes to the science behind these supplements: the jury is still out. We also have a healthy scepticism when it comes to supplements in general (click here for more). However, when it comes to Probiotic Supplements specifically there are a few things to be aware of. The first is the pretty wide definition of what constitutes a ‘probiotic’, which means it's pretty simple as a manufacturer to slap a label on it for extra money/health/trend value (its even in some skin care these days which gives you an idea). The other issue is that outside of a clinical setting, it is a bit like taking a multivitamin ie. you’re throwing a general mix of things when you don't know if/what anything is missing or out of balance. Everyone has a different mix of bacteria etc in their microbiome just like we all have different deficiencies/surplus of certain vitamins and minerals. A multivitamin, just like a probiotic supplement is adding a selection of common strains. That may work for you, a good brand with a mix that benefits your own situation can be powerful, but. it may not address whatever potential imbalances you may have which is why (in part) the jury and research is still out on the benefits of store bought supplements. Click here for much more. Plus they can be pretty pricey so if you really think you may have an imbalance it is worth having a discussion with a doctor or doing a test. We like www.verisana.co.uk for the at-home gut microbiome and health test for example but there are lots of others now available.
SIX: is there anything that ‘does’ work when it comes to adding ‘good bacteria’? well one area that is clearer when it comes to adding good bacteria is that it does come via what you eat. Click here for much more. In fact research has shown that changing your diet can have an effect on the gut microbiome in as little as 24 hrs. We know that a Western Diet (high fat/high sugar/low fibre) is bad for diversity where as a plant based/Mediterranean one appears to be beneficial to diversity and mix. Artificial Sweeteners are also disruptive as well as high sugar which has been linked to Candida overgrowth (a type of fungus) and heavy pesticide/herbicide use. The bottom line is that science does support benefits to the gut microbiome from eating a balanced and diverse mix of whole, organic foods. Even better if you can throw in some Probiotic and Prebiotic foods. On that note….
SEVEN: Prebiotics: what are they? Think of these as bacteria food! Probiotics are adding bacteria to your gut, Prebiotics feed the bacteria you have. In a nutshell a prebiotic is typically a form of fibre or starch that we cannot digest and use ourselves, but our gut bacteria can. Also known as ‘microbiota accessible carbohydrates’. Once again - the science is still evolving here about how and what they can do but click here if you want more detail.
EIGHT: Why is this something we want? Generally speaking, prebiotics have been shown to increase the growth of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli (generally seen as the good guys) all contributing to what we want: improvement in gut barrier function, immunity, reduction of potentially pathogenic bacteria (e.g., clostridia), and enhanced SCFA production. On top of this they play a role in the production of Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFA) as these starches/fibres are fermented in the colon by bacteria and produce these SCFA. Once again click here for much more on how these are something we want in our lives and bodies!
NINE: Where do we find Prebiotics? From a food perspective think things like: tomatoes, artichokes, bananas, asparagus, berries, garlic, onions, chicory, green vegetables, legumes, lentils, oats, linseed, barley and wheat. As long as you have no allergies or intolerances to these foods it is eminently sensible to make these a regular part of your diet. Once again when it comes to supplements you always have to exercise a form of caution, particularly as the science and our understanding continues to evolve. One common prebiotic supplement is Inulin Fibre. However, if you think you may have an imbalance you should talk to your doctor before taking any form of supplement. Same applies if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Always have that conversation. The other point is to start off slow with smaller dosage (always follow the manufacturers guidance) but we suggest starting at the lower end as larger doses can cause gas/bloating etc. Our preference is always getting what you need via food as that’s what our bodies are designed to do. Click here for a reminder for what to watch for when it comes to supplements.
TEN: The bottom line: it is super important to be conscious of your/your growing child’s gut health. What we do know at this point, is that eating a diverse mix of whole, unprocessed foods, avoiding pesticides/herbicides with a focus on those that have been shown to be both pre and probiotic as long as you have no allergies/intolerances is likely to be beneficial. These are not the only ways of course - click here for the ways to build a baby’s gut (including breastfeeding/method of birth). However, when it comes to us as adults other things like reducing stress research has shown is a powerful tool to impact gut health. Yet again another reason to reduce it where you can in your life!
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.