Probiotics have been getting a lot of great press in recent years, and many wellness fanatics have been incorporating them into their routine as a way to overhaul their gut health and aid a number of ailments. If you haven’t already read my article on How Gut Health Affects Our Skin, I suggest taking a look at this for an overview of how our gut and skin are connected. However, I believe the topic of gut health is an extensive and complex one, so I want to break this down a little further to explain its intricacies.
Let’s talk ‘gut microbiome’...
You may have heard this term floating around the wellness world, and you would be forgiven for assuming that the ‘microbiome’ was far too scientific to think about while you eat your breakfast. The microorganisms that make up our bodies (microbes, for short) exist in the trillions. In fact, we are technically made up of more bacterial cells than human cells… enjoy that thought. The majority of these microbes are found in the intestines and on our skin, so it’s no wonder skin is so intrinsically linked to gut health.
Inside the gastrointestinal tract, most of the microbes can be found in a particular part of your large intestine called the cecum; this is often referred to as the gut microbiome, and is thought to contain up to 1,000 different species of bacteria, weighing as much as 2kg, each with a unique purpose - some keep us healthy and some cause diseases, so the term “feed the good bacteria” is actually very relevant. Your gut microbiome weighs almost the same as your brain, and though its powers are only just coming to light, it is thought that this collection of microbes functions as an additional organ in our body to keep us healthy.
What are probiotics?
With this new understanding of the gut microbiome, the science of probiotics is quickly developing. While there have been various drinks and yoghurts marketed to the tummy-conscious in the past, never before has there been so much talk of probiotics, and products emerging to help get our gut health back to fighting fit.
Probiotics are essentially live bacteria that are a positive addition to your gut microbiome. Ingesting them can help support the ‘good’ bacteria, affecting everything from your tendency to illness, to your skin complexion. The balance of bacteria in our gut becomes weaker as we age, but it can also be easily knocked off balance throughout life by things like antibiotics, IBS, some surgeries, or even an intense bout of food poisoning. If you have heard of doctors cracking down on the unnecessary use of antibiotics in recent years, this is part of the reason why.
What about prebiotics?
You often hear about PRO-biotics and PRE-biotics together, and the definition is rarely explained in a way that us mere mortals (those of us without a medical science degree) can understand. Essentially, probiotics are live bacteria that positively affect your gut health, and prebiotics are the foods that feed the probiotic bacteria to keep them working hard. I’ll stick with the metaphor that I used in a previous article; the garden. You add seeds (probiotics) to help your garden grow, but you must add fertiliser and water (prebiotics) to help those seeds flourish and do what they are meant to do.
What are they all doing in there?
Thinking of adding bacteria to your body can seem, in a word, gross. But the benefits far outweigh any reservations you might have about introducing the right kind of bacteria. When you ingest probiotics, they essentially fight the bad bacteria by taking the space and the food that the bad bacteria has been feeding on, eventually reducing their numbers. Studies have now shown that probiotics help stimulate our immune system which makes it easier to fight off illness, making colds last for less time, and even improving our body’s response to vaccines.
Sold! How do I get probiotics into my body?
We’re at a time in health history where probiotic research is just beginning, so when it comes to knowing what to look for in probiotic supplements, it can be difficult to wade through the information. You will see many supplements that tell you how much ‘friendly bacteria’ is inside (3 million, 5 million, 10 million, etc.), but what is the difference, and how many should you be taking? Research into this area of science is ongoing, and many nutritionists and other health professionals believe that everyone’s specific gut microbiome is entirely unique and personal, and therefore standard probiotics bought in shops may not be doing a whole lot for us on an individual level.
It’s also worth noting that while probiotics are considered safe for all, those with issues around their immune system function may be at risk when taking probiotic supplements, so it’s always best to speak to a doctor before making any changes.
For most, however, increasing the good bacteria in our gut microbiome is generally a positive thing. Probiotics can be taken using foods, or supplements in tablet or sachet form. If you want to up your probiotic food intake, it’s good to know that probiotics are created in the fermentation process - that’s why fermented foods are on-trend right now.
Foods to add to your diet:
- Coconut based yoghurt
- Sauerkraut (finely shredded cabbage that has been fermented by lactic acid bacteria)
- Tempeh (a fermented soybean product that forms a firm patty)
- Kimchi (a fermented, spicy Korean side dish)
- Miso (a Japanese seasoning)
- Kombucha (a fermented black or green tea drink)
Also, complement these foods by increasing your intake of foods with prebiotics to support the good bacteria and help it flourish. This can be done by eating high-fiber foods such as onions, garlic, oats, apples with the skin on, chicory root, asparagus, and more.
Are you eating probiotic foods to improve your health? Keep in touch on Instagram and let me know how you find the change.