What are probiotics good for and which is the best one to take? When to take probiotic foods or supplements? Which probiotic to take with antibiotics? You will learn the answer to all these questions and more by the end of this article as we delve into probiotics with a bitesize guide.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms that we consider the ‘good’ bacteria in the gut. In the human body, they outnumber our own cells by around 10 to 1! The bacteria that make up the microbiome in our gut is thought of as a forgotten organ because it has so many important processes in the body.
Why have probiotics become such an important topic? In modern medicine, treatments such as antibiotics have been given for all kinds of illnesses and infections. Although antibiotics can save lives, they also have side effects. As the name suggests, anti-biotics means eliminating the bacteria – good and bad. When we take a course of antibiotics, we pretty much go back to a clean slate where opportunist ‘bad’ bacteria can step in and start a colony.
Without a plan to replenish the gut after antibiotics, it can cause a host of unnecessary side effects and poor health since we need the bacteria to help digest food and transform it into vitamins and many other crucial processes. This is where probiotics come in. Probiotics are the good bacteria that we need to replenish after taking antibiotics.
What’s the difference between probiotics and prebiotics?
Simply put, prebiotics are the food for probiotics to thrive. Prebiotics are found in plant fibers, which are forms of carbohydrates your body does not fully digest. This makes them a great source of fuel for the good bacteria in the lower GI tract.
When we eat prebiotics, it feeds the supply of good bacteria in the gut, therefore enhancing their benefits. This is crucial. If we don’t feed our gut bacteria, they will feed off the mucus lining in the gut. We have to feed the probiotic bacteria with prebiotics for them to be able to continue doing what they need to do for our bodies such as help us convert food to vitamins and keep our immune system strong.
Examples of prebiotic foods include asparagus, apples, bananas, chicory, oats, barley, wheat, berries, green vegetables, onions, garlic, peas, beans and leaks. That’s why it’s recommended to always take probiotics alongside a healthy, balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
Types of probiotics
When thinking about taking probiotics there are several types to know about so you can find the right one to suit you. There are also different strains of bacteria within these probiotic types that can be useful when knowing which one to choose.
Lactobacillus, Lactococcus, and Bifidobacterium are the three most common probiotics found in fermented vegetables and cold-processed foods such as yogurts, kefir or probiotics dairy drinks. These are non-spore forming types of probiotics with a variety of health benefits.
Bacillus subtilis are a diverse group of spore forming bacteria that are a normal healthy inhabitant of the gut in animals and humans. It’s also a very hardy bacteria that is able to survive the acidic conditions of the GI tract. Bacillus subtilis also support normal immune reaction of the intestinal cells and their spore forming ability helps crowd out unwanted pathogens.
Each type and strain of probiotic, spore and non-spore forming, performs a different role with particular benefits for digestive and immune health. Multi-strain probiotic supplements provide a broad spectrum of benefits.
Benefits of probiotics
The benefits of probiotics are wide, from improving gut health and mental health. helping your body to digest food, and transform foods into vitamins and much more. Probiotics are also used to solve a variety of digestive disorders, lower cholesterol and enhance immunity. When to take probiotic foods or supplements depends on your symptoms which should be discussed with a health professional. Let’s look at the benefits of probiotics in more detail:
If you suffer from regular digestive problems, it could be down to the balance of your gut bacteria. Taking a probiotic has been shown to reduce diarrhea and digestive disorders such as Crohn’s disease and colitis. Furthermore, probiotics help keep the GI tract healthy by communicating with the intestinal cells to maintain healthy gut barrier function. This helps to prevent and reduce conditions such as ‘leaky gut’ where the body struggles to absorb the nutrients it needs due to the gut barrier disfunction.
The digestive system is directly connected to the brain via the gut-brain axis. This is why you can have ‘gut feelings’ or when your stomach does somersaults if you think about something nerve-wracking. This also means that our digestive system also directly impacts our mental health. Plus, our gut is also responsible for producing as much as 95% of serotonin requirements – our body’s happy chemical. So, if the gut bacteria becomes imbalanced, it could affect serotonin release and consequently your mood.
You may wonder how something as simple as taking probiotics could help the immune system, but many of our body’s immune cells are actually located in the gut. In fact, the immune cells in our gut provide 50% of the body’s immunity! So when our gut health is off, our immune system’s ability to fight incoming pathogens is weakened. Taking regular probiotics have also been shown to help with autoimmune disorders and inflammatory conditions affecting the gut.
Probiotics have an indirect but fascinating effect on body fat, because when you change the balance of gut bacteria, you change the way your body metabolizes food. Human microbiomes have also been studied and found that lean people have different mixes of gut bacteria to those of obese people. This suggests that although probiotic bacteria themselves may not directly affect weight loss, they can alter the microbiome to facilitate healthy weight balance and better nutrient absorption. Taking a probiotic for weight loss will of course have best results alongside a healthy diet.
If you have constant skin problems, with acne breakouts or other skin conditions, there is a good chance your gut balance is off. Healthy skin equals healthy gut and vice versa. Our skin is extremely receptive to what happens in the rest of our body because it’s connected to the central nervous system, the autonomic nervous system and the peripheral sensory nervous system. Probiotics can help with acne because they rebalance the healthy bacteria in the gut and reduce inflammation. When the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut is altered, the skin is one of the first places to see the effects.
When to take probiotic foods or supplements
As we have learnt, when taking antibiotics, it’s a good idea to take a probiotic during and after too in order to repopulate the good bacteria quicker. However, other medications can affect the microbiome too in different ways. Drugs such as metformin, antivirals, anti-inflammatories and pain killers can interrupt the natural balance of the gut flora and in some cases slow the growth of the good bacteria. If you’re on medication and wondering if you should or when to take probiotic supplements, it’s always best to check with your doctor.
Which probiotic to take with antibiotics
When taking antibiotics you may notice unwanted symptoms such as diarrhea or thrush. This is due to the shift in bacterial and fungal balance as a side effects of the antibiotics working to defeat an infection. Just one week of antibiotics can alter our gut microbiota for up to one year!
Since there are many types of bacteria in your microbiome, the best probiotic to take with antibiotics, or afterwards, would firstly be one that can survive its way to your gut. Your microbiota needs as much assistance as it can get after antibiotics, so drinking a probiotic drink now and then probably won’t cut it. A sturdy, spore-forming strain like bacillus subtilis is a good one to have alongside non-spore forming strains such as Lactobacilli and Saccharomyces.
Since probiotics are also bacteria, they are best taken a few hours after antibiotics and continued after your course of antibiotics is finished.
Side effects of probiotics
Probiotics are unlikely to cause any unwanted side effects since the bacteria are well studied and already found in your body. Occasionally they may cause mild stomach-upset the first few days of taking it as the body adjusts.
To be safe, always consult with your physician before starting a new probiotic supplement.
When choosing the right probiotic for you, pick one that is shelf-stable so you know it won’t lose its quality by the time it gets to you.