Did you know that taking probiotics could potentially have an impact on your emotional health? But what supplement should you take, what the heck are prebiotics and do you need them? We give you the rundown on the things you should know.
Probiotics are a type of good bacteria that can provide you with a range of health benefits, when taken in the right amounts. These live microorganisms are said to restore the healthy balance of gut bacteria in your digestive system, regulating your stools and improving your overall immune system. Astoundingly, in some cases, the addition of probiotics are said to help manage stress levels, and control anxiety and depression.
If you’re ill, probiotics are a popular remedy for digestive problems as they can help to restore the gut flora to a balanced state. If you’re healthy, probiotics are used more like an everyday vitamin. Today, it’s easier than ever to get a probiotic boost. Consuming Yakult, eating miso or kimchi, or snacking on yoghurt with berries will all help up your probiotic intake.
Every country has a difference stance around probiotic usage, and it’s recommended to seek medical advice if you want to be absolutely certain that what you’re doing is right. As a general rule, we’ve selected 14 things you should know before you start on a course of probiotics:
1. Selecting the specific organisms needed for your body
Like all other microorganisms, probiotics come in many variations, and are classified into two main groups. Lactobacillus is the most common probiotic, found in yoghurt and fermented food. This form of probiotic can help with diarrhea, and has a positive impact on people who cannot digest lactose. Another common probiotic, bifidobacterium, can be found in some dairy products like cheese, and works particularly well for those who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Choosing the right type of probiotic helps you address your specific concerns, and hopefully optimizes your overall health.
2. Choosing the best probiotic supplement
In general, we’re told that the best probiotic supplement is the one with the highest bacterium count (measured as Colony-Forming Units, or CFUs, and which can run into the billions). But researchers say that a more effective measurement is actually looking at the combination of different strains of bacteria each supplement includes.
For instance, when you’re looking for a new supplement, you could look for one with both L. acidophilus (which colonises the walls of the small intestines and supports nutrient absorption) and B. longum (the most common bacteria found in the digestive tracts of adults and which helps flush out toxins).
The different strains of probiotic bacteria become naturally concentrated in different areas of the digestive tract. But they all work together to produce a synergistic effect that benefits our health.
3. Optimal conditions
We must never forget that probiotics are living organisms, and they need a good environment so they can flourish. Optimise your gut microbiome by eating real foods and avoiding processed foods. Also stay away from processed sugar, because sugar accelerates the growth of pathogenic microbes. Keeping your gut healthy in turn helps your probiotic supplement to work better.
4. Side effects may include gas or bloating
This is a relatively uncommon issue, but some people have reported side effects such as a temporary increase in gas and bloating. This shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise as your body needs time to adjust to new internal conditions. Those taking yeast-based probiotics, by the way, may experience constipation and increased thirst. Fret not, for these effects usually go away within a few days of continued intake. However, if you experience cognitive impairment and bloat that lasts for longer than a few days, consult your doctor.
To reduce the likelihood of side effects, you could start slow. Begin with a low dose of probiotics and slowly up your intake to a full dosage within a few weeks of continued use.
5. The probiotic strain used in many food items may not be the best
While it is hard to deny that the yogurt in your fridge is indeed a good source of beneficial probiotics, it is certainly not the best. Today’s commercially mass-produced yogurt runs in contrast with the traditional method of making yogurt with cultured raw milk. It is highly likely that most commercial yogurt is made from factory-farmed, pasteurised and homogenised milk that might even contain genetically engineered hormones and artificial sweeteners, all of which affects the organisms that are beneficial to our bodies. In fact, some clinical trials have shown that these commercial products contain too little good bacteria to offer the health benefits you seek. These yogurts may be a source of nutrients like calcium, magnesium and zinc, but may not be your best choice if you’re looking to up your gut health.
To be considered a probiotic food, yogurt must contain at least one billion active probiotic cultures of a recognized probiotic species per serving, according to Health Canada, and many commercial yogurts fall well short of this.
6. Ensure you are buying reputable brands of probiotics
For probiotics, brands do matter. Big brands like Bio-K+ and Culturelle tend to invest in research and technology, so you are — in theory — more assured that their products are backed by quality scientific research.
7. Check the expiry date
As mentioned earlier, probiotics are living microorganisms and thus will lose their potency after a certain period of time. They have a limited shelf life, so make sure you buy something that isn’t about to expire.
8. Dig into fermented foods
Live probiotic cultures are often found in fermented dairy products such as yogurt (choose a yogurt labelled “live and active cultures”) and kefir, a fermented milk drink that is slightly different from the consistency of a yogurt, as it is more grainy. Other fermented foods abundant in probiotics include kombucha, pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, and miso.
9. Probiotics need prebiotics
Prebiotics are made up of non-digestable food elements that enable probiotics to flourish in your gut. Some examples of prebiotics include bananas, asparagus, garlic, and onions. These fibers act as food and fuel for the probiotics to thrive on, resulting in more efficient probiotics that will help maintain a healthy environment in your body. Essentially, it is that extra push that maximises the function of probiotics.
10. When should you take them?
Probiotics are best taken 15-30 minutes before breakfast. This has been shown to be a time when bacteria has the highest chance of survival due to the acidic nature of the gut. Avoid taking probiotics together with acidic foods such as soda or juices, or very hot foods and alcohol, because they can kill microbes and greatly deplete their functional purposes.
11. Storage places
You’re probably making a mistake if you’re storing your probiotic supplements in the bathroom medicine cabinet or the kitchen cupboard. These places have fluctuating temperatures which result in a stark change in moisture levels, thereby compromising on the effectiveness of your products. Check the labels to ensure if they need to be stored in the fridge. If not, tuck away your dry supplements in a cool, dry, and dark place.
12. Minimum dosage of 5-10 Billion Colony-Forming Units (CFUs)
Although we mentioned earlier that CFU count may not be the best way to select a probiotic, it’s still a regular measurement of how many bacteria in probiotics are capable of dividing and forming colonies. Hence, the CFU count should be as high as possible to let the bacteria flourish. For a daily probiotic, a good range would be between 5-10 billion CFUs. For probiotics tackling a specific illness, 15-45 billion CFUs is recommended.
13. Probiotics are important for when you’re taking antibiotics
If you’re on antibiotics, you’ll want to help bring your gut flora back to a healthy balance. While many might think that you will have to wait till the end of the antibiotics course to start consuming probiotics, you can actually jump-start the whole scenario. Take your probiotic supplement at least two hours before or after taking the antibiotics, and continue even after your antibiotic course has finished.
By Elly Chaw