Our digestive system is home to hundreds of different bacteria (known as probiotics) that keep our intestinal linings healthy, break down food, and regulate our immune system. From birth, our gut is populated with about 1000 known species of bacteria and that number continues to grow as more are being discovered.
Pre- and probiotics seem to be everywhere in the marketplace and in advertising. There is increasing research showing that pre and probiotics can modify our gut microbiome and influence health and disease; however, it is also increasingly clear that the right strain has to be used for the right purpose, or there is no gain in either achieving or maintaining health.
How good is your gut health?
More than likely you or someone you know suffers from occasional “plumbing problems” ranging from gas and bloating to nausea, stomach cramps, constipation or diarrhea.
This may not surprise you, but diet and lifestyle play a key role in keeping our intestines running smoothly. These are common culprits that can wreak havoc on our GI tracts increasing the number of bad bacteria and decreasing the good bacteria:
- not eating enough fruit, vegetables, and/or dietary fibre in general;
- too many processed carbohydrates
- food intolerances (such as a gluten or dairy intolerance);
- taking antibiotics; and/or
- a stressful lifestyle (including life events, relationships, work, finances, travel, even intense regular exercise).
Did the last point surprise you a little? Yes, exercise is good for you, but high-performance, intense exercise can lead to common GI complaints. Why? Exercise shunts blood to the muscles, away from the GI tract, and raises our core temperature. Less blood to internal organs and an increased internal temperature can disrupt the intestinal lining, setting off the inflammatory response. The same can occur with acute and chronic stress.
Do prebiotics have health benefits?
Yes. Prebiotics are the non-digestible carbohydrates that act as “food” for probiotics which help to keep a healthy balance of bacteria in the digestive system. Eating prebiotic-containing foods often contain fibre and other nutrients.
What are the health benefits of probiotics?
Research shows that probiotics may help:
- Lessen diarrhea that comes from taking antibiotics
- Improve symptoms of ulcerative colitis which is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and
- Improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Some research shows that probiotics may help with lactose intolerance, but more comprehensive studies are needed. Keep in mind that the positive effects of probiotics depend on the type and quantity eaten and will vary from person to person.
What foods have prebiotics?
Not all non-digestible carbohydrates are prebiotics. Prebiotics include:
- found naturally in:
- asparagus, bananas, garlic, leeks, onion, tomatoes, barley, rye, whole grains, and chicory root
- found naturally in:
- fermented dairy products like yogurt, buttermilk and kefir
What foods have probiotics?
Probiotics are mostly found in foods like:
- Cheese (e.g. Gouda)
- Fermented soy (e.g. miso, tempeh)
- Other fermented foods and beverages (e.g. sauerkraut, kimchi, sourdough bread, Kombucha)
Which probiotics should I eat?
The types of probiotics that have been shown to be effective are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Look at the ingredient list on food packages for these probiotics.
How much prebiotics do I need to see a benefit?
The recommended amount is unknown. Likely, it depends on a number of things like the strain of bacteria, the health condition you are trying to improve and the types of other bacteria in the colon. Also, it is suggested that prebiotic supplements or prebiotic-rich foods need to be taken regularly to see any benefits.
If prebiotics are sold as supplements, they are regulated like other vitamins, mineral and nutritional supplements under the Natural Health Product Regulations (NHP Regulations). NHPs require a Natural Product Number (NPN), a Drug Information Number (DIN) or a Homeopathic Medicine Number (DIN-HM) in Canada. Check to see your supplement has a NPN, DIN or a DIN-HM number.
Although remember, being regulated does not guarantee that prebiotics are effective. It only means that the product contains what is listed on the label and that they are safe to take.
How much probiotics do I need to see a benefit?
It is not yet clear how much probiotics will give you health benefits. However, it is suggested that regular, long-term use is needed to keep healthy bacteria in your digestive system. The positive effects of probiotics vary from person to person.
Probiotic supplements are not necessary to be healthy. If you are thinking of taking a probiotic supplement, talk to your doctor or dietitian.
Are probiotics safe?
Eating foods with probiotics is thought to be safe for most people including pregnant women. If you have a condition or disease or would like to give probiotics to an infant, speak to your doctor or dietitian first.
Probiotic bacteria are often grown using milk protein. Individuals with a milk allergy should avoid foods with probiotics since they may contain milk protein.
Are probiotics regulated in Canada?
Foods with added probiotics are not regulated in Canada. That means that there are no rules for how much probiotics there should be in a food or how to label probiotics on food packaging.
Probiotic supplements are regulated under the Natural Health Products Regulations in Canada. This means that probiotic supplements must meet certain standards to be sold in Canada.
Evidence supports including pre- and probiotics into your daily routine for maintaining a healthy digestive system. So, next time you sit down to a meal, don’t forget to feed your ecosystem!
Article written by Courtney Chisholm, Registered Dietitian at World Health Calgary Place.