Living inside our gut is an entire ecosystem of micro-organisms (i.e. living organisms that can only be seen by a microscope), including bacteria, fungus, and viruses. Collectively known as the microbiota, they line the entire digestive system and play a complex role in the development of diseases, such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, and depression.
Good Bacteria vs. Bad Bacteria
Bacteria is the most ubiquitous, with more than 1,000 species and three million genes. In reality, you are more bacteria than human. No two individuals — not even identical twins — will share the same bacteria; each person’s gut bugs are unique to them.
Studies have shown that gut microbiota plays a pivotal role in:
- Mediating metabolic processes, such as lipid control, glucose homeostasis, appetite regulation, and vitamin and nutrient absorption
- Maintaining the integrity of the gut barrier function
- Eliminating organisms that have the potential to cause disease
- Eliciting sound immune responses
- Digesting foods that cannot be digested by the stomach and small intestine
Gut dysbiosis is a condition caused by an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the gut. Symptoms include bloating, excessive fatigue, brain fog, reflux, a change in bowel habits, increased sugar cravings, difficulty losing weight, and intolerances to foods (like gluten and dairy). Imbalances in the gut can be attributed to the follow:
- Inappropriate, incomplete, or excessive use of antibiotics
- The “modern” diet: a diet rich in refined sugars, refined carbohydrates, processed foods, and artificial sweeteners
- Excess alcohol consumption
- Increased levels of stress and anxiety
- Consumption of pesticides and chemicals
- Poor dental hygiene
Probiotics and prebiotics are crucial in healing your gut from such imbalances.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria that help repopulate the gut so the bad bacteria get outnumbered by the good bacteria.
Which foods contain probiotics?
Having a small serving of probiotics daily (in as many meals as possible) is a great way to improve your overall gut health. Fermented food contains live bacteria that will help repopulate your gut.
Some examples include:
- Keffir (dairy and non-dairy)
- Some types of cheese (cheddar, gouda, mozzarella)
- Cultured or pickled vegetables (pickled in salt water and fermented)
What about supplements?
There are millions of probiotic supplements on the market right now, and choosing one that effectively repopulates your gut bacteria is vital. Common downfalls of current probiotic products include inadequate numbers or types of bacteria, poorly stored bacteria (leading to low colony counts), and ineffective technology used to deliver bacteria to the gut.
Probiotic Supplement Shopping Tips
1. Review the label.
It’s important to get a variety of species of bacteria in the gut as they all have slightly different roles to play. Look out for lactobacillus, bifidobacterium, and, in some probiotics, saccharomyces. Within these groups, there will be a subset of different bacteria to pay attention to (e.g. Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus rhamnosus), which help specific chronic conditions. The more diverse the bacteria, the better.
2. Check the number of bacteria.
Some supplements have one to two billion colony forming units (CFU), while others have 20 billion. Aim for 10 to 20 billion CFU when buying your supplements.
3. Pay attention to the storage place.
Probiotics that are stored in warehouses or overly heated stores will likely not be as reliable or effective as probiotics that are stored in a cool and dry place.
4. Look at the expiry date.
Supplements that have been sitting on the shelf for years will not be as potent or effective as supplements that expire quickly and require refrigeration.
What are prebiotics?
Sourced from food, prebiotics are essentially fibers that your body cannot digest.
Which foods are high in prebiotics?
Raw dandelion leaves, chicory root, root vegetables (radishes, beetroot, carrots), artichokes, garlic, leek, raw asparagus, onions, bananas, flaxseeds, and wheat bran.
Why is it important to have both probiotics and prebiotics?
Prebiotics and probiotics work synergistically to produce a healthy gut flora. Prebiotics nourish and act as fertilizers for the probiotics and pre-existing gut bacteria. The gut bacteria ferment prebiotics so they can thrive.
Dr. Javeri graduated from Imperial College London with a distinction in clinical practice and clinical science. She completed internal medicine training before obtaining her MRCP and SCE in endocrinology and diabetes from the Royal College of Physicians.