Trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms live in the gut. Scientists refer to this metropolis of gut-dwelling organisms as the gut microbiota. Most of the microbes reside in the gut, are quite harmless. Some are helpful, and a small number can cause harm.
A disturbance in the natural balance of bacteria in the gut has been shown to increase digestive problems, infections and other issues.
Probiotics are defined as living microorganisms that, when ingested, provide a health benefit1. For a microbe to be called a probiotic, it must have several characteristics.
These include being able to:
- Be isolated from a human.
- Survive in your intestine after ingestion (being eaten).
- Have a proven benefit to you.
- Be safely consumed
The most common probiotics that manufacturers add to commercial products are the bacterial species of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. Certain types of yeast can also function as probiotics. A range of probiotics products are available, usually in supplement form. Some foods such as yogurts can also be considered to have probiotic effects.
It has been documented through many clinical trials that probiotics could shape the intestinal microbiota leading to potential control of several bowel conditions and promotion of overall wellness 1, 2,3. When recommended to take a probiotic, it’s actually really important to take them correctly!
The most common mistakes I see people make are the following:
- Not all probiotics provide the same benefits so choosing a probiotic strain that hasn’t been studied for the symptoms you want to manage may be a complete waste of money! The reason being is that different strains of microbes work on different symptoms or conditions. For example, Bifidobacterium longum can help with depression, Lactobacillus Rhamnosus can help with immune function and Bifidobacterium lactis can help with constipation. Consult a dietitian or gastroenterologist if in doubt!
- Another mistake is not taking a probiotic for long enough. If you suffer with a digestive condition, it’s best to take for at least 4- 8 weeks to assess if they are helping you. After that time you can ask if it’s working for you or not. If you don’t notice much of an effect stop taking that product and try something different. If helping, you need to continue to take to gain the benefits. Don’t forget that you will need to take a probiotic daily as they only work if you take them regularly.
- Different probiotic supplements can vary greatly in their dosing recommendations, so be sure to follow the instructions for the probiotic supplement you’re taking. For example, some strains are best taken on an empty stomach, some just before eating, while others can be taken at any time. Getting this right will help you reap the benefits.
- Be careful to read about storage instructions too – leaving probiotics on the shelf when they require refrigeration can be a common error.
- The dose you take is also important, you may have the right strain but there might not be enough live cultures of the microbe present. The strength of a probiotic is measured in colony forming units (CFUs), which refers to colonies of microbes in the product. And higher CFUs aren’t always better! The optimal number of CFUs depends on the condition you want to treat. Your dietitian or doctor can help you figure out which number of CFUs is best for you.
- If you suffer with IBS, be careful of products that are combined with prebiotic fibre if you’re taking a probiotic for the first time. That said, a healthy gut starts with your diet, so it’s important to focus try and get your prebiotic fibre form your diet by eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, wholegrain, nuts, seeds and pulses, which will have overall beneficial effect on the microbiota, and most likely work synergistically with your probiotic. If you are struggling to find the balance between fibre tolerance and what strain of probiotic to take, get in touch as my bespoke programme can help you figure this out.
Overall, the best way to ensure you’re getting the most out of your probiotics is to understand the type of probiotic you’re taking, review its clinical research, take the appropriate dose, store them according to the package directions as well as include a wide variety of plant-based foods in your diet.
Kim S.K., Guevarra R.B., Kim Y.T., Kwon J., Kim H., Cho J.H., Kim H.B., Lee J.H. Role of Probiotics in Human Gut Microbiome-Associated Diseases. J Microbiol Biotechnol. 2019; 29(9):1335-1340.
Parker, E.A., Roy, T., D’Adamo, C.R. L. Wieland, S. Probiotics and gastrointestinal conditions: An overview of evidence from the Cochrane Collaboration. Nutrition. 2018; 45: 125-134.e11
Ford, A.C., Harris, L.A., Lacy, B.E., Quigley, E.M.M., Moayyedi, P. Systematic review with meta-analysis: the efficacy of prebiotics, probiotics, synbiotics and antibiotics in irritable bowel syndrome. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2018; 48: 1044– 1060.