Feed Your Flora with Probiotics

Author: Dr Ana Wilson, Consultant Gastroenterologist and Specialist Endoscopist at St Mark's Hospital

Date: Feb 2017

‘Gut Flora’ is a complex community of microorganisms in the gut which include bacteria, yeasts and viruses, all being both beneficial and harmful. This community performs many functions that are vital to your health.

By Dr Ana Wilson, Consultant Gastroenterologist and Specialist Endoscopist at St Mark’s Hospital explores probiotics in this article.

‘I am regularly asked about probiotics and how beneficial they are. In short probiotic food and supplements can help gut flora to function optimally, balancing these different types and supporting your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and fight infection. Here I answer the most common questions about probiotics and give advice on how you can make them work for you’

What are probiotics and why might they be beneficial to health?

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts. We think of these as ‘good’ bacteria which are either the same or similar to the ones found in the human gut already and which exert beneficial effects on the health. Probiotics help to keep your gut healthy which, in turn, has a positive effect on your immune system and overall health.

Are there different types of probiotics?

Yes, there are many different types, Lactobacillius and Bifidobacterium have been shown to have the greatest benefit on gastrointestinal symptoms. Lactobacillius support immunity, fight harmful bacteria and encourage bacterial balance. Bifidobacterium inhibit harmful bacteria, support immune system response and aid healthy gut community. Specific strains provide different uses, though many people can benefit from probiotics for general health and wellbeing. You can usually take these probiotics as a combination in tablet form.

Is there evidence that probiotics can improve people’s bowel health?

Probiotics can improve your bowel health, particularly for milder conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and bloating. IBS is a ‘functional gut disorder’ and there is evidence which shows that probiotics can improve the symptoms of IBS. They have been shown to help regulate bowel movements and relieve bloating, pain and gas. I have seen patients benefit from taking probiotics – particularly those suffering from IBS.

Would you recommend healthy people take probiotics?

There is no evidence to suggest that people without health problems need to take probiotics, although I would argue that they can be part of normal healthy diet - some foods contain the same probiotic benefits as supplements. Food, such as live cultured yoghurts, kimchi, raw cheese and sauerkraut, contain probiotics, so I would recommend healthy people eating these foods if they would like a probiotic boost without taking supplements.

And are probiotics useful if your diet is poor?

Once you have the right probiotics in your gut, it important to keep them strong in order for them to have a positive effect. Probiotics need prebiotics to thrive – these are nondigestive carbohydrates which act as fuel. These occur naturally in non digestible fibre, in the form of food such as whole grains, raw fruit and vegetables; essentially healthy food we require in a balanced diet. Probiotics are not a replacement for poor diet – all probiotics work differently and it is unclear exactly how they exert their effects.

What are the biggest misconceptions about probiotics?

Probably that probiotics will improve all symptoms on their own, which is unlikely. Probiotics cannot replace medicine, though they can be used to supplement existing treatment. It would be beneficial to use probiotics as a preventative measure, but it is important to recognise that they cannot be used to relieve symptoms on their own. Particularly in conditions such as IBS, each patient is individual and probiotics are not a one-size fits all treatment method.

Reproduced with permission by St Marks Hospital Foundation/pha media - 2016

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Last revised: 13 February 2017