Once unheard of, the term ‘probiotics’ is now a household name. Awareness around the importance of looking after your ‘friendly bacteria’ has risen dramatically in the last decade and people are now starting to understand that optimal health starts in the gut. They are even prescribed by many vets to support the gut health of animals!
There are around 100 trillion bacteria that live mostly in your gut. This is made up of a mixture of beneficial bacteria and other more harmful types that need to be kept to a minimum. It’s crucial that the good guys outnumber the bad; that way there’s less chance of them causing any harm. As well as supporting a healthy gut environment and being an important part of the immune system, beneficial bacteria help to produce essential nutrients and can even affect how you think and feel.
The balance between good and bad bacteria is strongly influenced by diet and lifestyle choices, and unfortunately, the typical Western diet and lifestyle is more conducive to feeding the bad guys and starving the good.
Many people choose to add ‘probiotic yoghurt drinks’ to their diets in a bid to boost the good guys. And in theory this is a good idea. However, it’s unlikely that this habit is doing your health as much good as you might think.
Beneficial bacteria are living organisms that are easily damaged and have a very limited shelf life. Many probiotic drinks may once have contained beneficial bacteria but it is unlikely that there are many left by the time they reach your shopping basket, and even if there are they are highly unlikely to survive the harsh conditions in the journey from your mouth, through your stomach and into the gastrointestinal tract. These drinks are also usually loaded with sugar.
Our advice is to steer clear of sugar-laden ‘probiotic drinks’ and instead follow these guidelines on how to nurture a healthy balance of good bacteria:
• Feed the good – Beneficial bacteria thrive on a diet rich in wholefoods, fruits and vegetables so you need to include lots of these in your diet. Foods for beneficial bacteria are known as ‘prebiotics’. Particularly useful prebiotic foods include asparagus, bananas, onions, garlic, cabbage, chicory root, dandelion greens, beans and lentils, wholegrains, artichokes, root vegetables and apples.
• Starve the bad – Avoid sugar, alcohol, caffeine, refined and processed foods as these can feed unhealthy organisms.
• Probiotic-rich foods – As well as providing food for the good guys and starving the bad, it’s also useful to consume foods, which naturally contain high levels of probiotic organisms. Many people think of live yoghurt when it comes to upping your intake of good bacteria, however there is a range of foods, which are far superior to live yoghurt when it comes to supporting your gut microflora. Fermented foods such as kefir, kimchi, tempeh, natto, lassi, sauerkraut and kombucha naturally contain high levels of a variety of beneficial bacteria and are a great addition to your daily diet. Click here to read more about Kefir.
• Probiotic supplement – A daily probiotic supplement is now considered to be as important for your health as a daily multivitamin & mineral. Choose a probiotic supplement that contains scientifically proven strains to ensure it will be effective. Beneficial bacteria are easily damaged during processing and even on the journey down into the stomach so it is also important that your probiotic can demonstrate that it can survive the stomach acid and reach the intestines intact, otherwise it will be ineffective.
• Antibiotics only when necessary – Antibiotics wipe out both good and bad bacteria so it’s important to take them only when necessary. If you do need to take antibiotics however, make sure you follow up with a high strength probiotic supplement to replenish your beneficial gut microflora. In addition, be particularly careful with your diet whilst using antibiotics and afterwards too. Consume plenty of prebiotic foods that will help the good bacteria to repopulate and avoid refined, sugary foods to limit the growth of unhealthy microorganisms.
• Minimise exposure to environmental & lifestyle factors – Friendly bacteria are highly vulnerable to damage by lifestyle and environmental factors. Chlorinated and fluoridated water, antibacterial soaps, agricultural chemicals and pesticides, pollution, stress, noise and food additives can all interfere with a healthy gut microflora, so it’s worth assessing your exposure to these factors and taking steps to minimise where possible. Incorporate regular relaxation into your lifestyle to reduce stress and support beneficial bacteria. Yoga and mindfulness are ancient techniques that have a long history of use for reducing stress and supporting overall wellbeing.