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Why are probiotics so important?

The health benefits of probiotics are often talked about by health professionals, TV adverts and health magazines. But what exactly does ‘probiotic’ mean?

Probiotics are basically cultures of healthy bacteria. Broken down, the word is made up of ‘pro’, which means to promote, and ‘biotic’ which means living organisms. Therefore probiotics promote the growth of healthy micro-organisms like gut bacteria.

Probiotics can be added to yogurts or food supplements. Adding bacteria to food sounds strange to many, since we are told so often that bacteria are bad for us – hence why we use antibacterial soaps and surface cleaners.

However, the bacteria found in probiotics are good for the gut, as they keep unfriendly bacteria and yeasts under check. By supporting good digestion they can help to rebalance the whole body, since problems with digestion will undermine many other areas of health. This emphasis on good digestion goes back thousands of years – Hippocrates himself once said that ‘bad digestion is at the root of all evil’.

Common types of probiotics are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium but there’s a huge range out there, so don’t be put off by their unusual-sounding names! 

What do probiotics actually do?

At a basic level, probiotics promote a healthy balance of gut flora by introducing healthy bacteria to the gut, which in turn helps control levels of unfriendly bacteria and yeast. There’s only so much space in the gut, so the more friendly bacteria you add, the less room there is for unfriendly bacteria.

This improves digestion and reduces constipation – friendly bacteria create an acidic environment in the large intestine which helps keep bowel movements regular and easy to pass. They also help to keep yeasts like Candida albicans under check, which can reduce unpleasant symptoms like bloating, gas, indigestion, and even skin rashes and bad breath. But improving gut health has a number of other important knock on effects:

Probiotics can help reduce allergies and improve the immune system. Over 70% of immune cells are found in the gut, so if they are becoming overworked by large volumes of unfriendly bacteria and yeast, the immune system may become extremely sensitive. This can cause allergies, as the immune system begins to attack any particles that appear to be a threat – even something as innocent as pollen.

HIGHLIGHTMake sure your gut is a a welcoming environment for healthy bacteria by taking a prebiotic alongside your probiotic. Our favourite is A.Vogel's Molkosan Fruit.

On the other hand, if there are too many unfriendly bacteria and yeast in the gut, the immune system can become worn down and tired, meaning that it is not as effective at killing off the microorganisms which actually pose a threat – making you more vulnerable to infections, colds and flus. Friendly bacteria help out by reducing the numbers of unfriendly bacteria, and they also produce L+ lactic acid – not the kind that causes cramps and stitches, but a good kind that helps fight pathogens.

Probiotics can help reduce thrush, as this unpleasant yeast infection is caused by an overgrowth of Candida albicans, which can be kept under control by good bacteria.

Probiotics can also lower cholesterol. It is thought that it does this by binding to the cholesterol molecules and moving them out of our digestive system.

They can aid recovery from antibiotics. Many people experience diarrhoea after a course of antibiotics, and this is because antibiotics destroy all the bacteria in the gut – friendly and unfriendly. This upsets the normal function of the digestive system. However, introducing friendly bacteria back into the gut can help rebalance your system.

They can help with digestive problems like IBS as they help to balance and regulate the digestive system.

Why are they so important today?

Probiotics are important in modern society more than ever partly because of our diet and lifestyles.

We tend to eat greater amounts of refined sugar and processed foods than previous decades, which are the kinds of foods that unfriendly bacteria and yeasts feed on. Our hectic lifestyles mean that we eat poorly, rush our food, or eat on the go, so if we don’t have enough friendly bacteria we can really struggle to digest our food properly.

We are also often stressed or anxious as a result of our hectic lifestyles. What people don’t realise is that when we are stressed, our body diverts all energy and attention away from digestion and towards the ‘fight or flight response’ – it sends blood to the brain to keep it active (or too active as people suffering from stress and anxiety may tell you), and to the arms and legs to prepare them for action, and it stimulates the adrenal glands and converts energy stores into glucose. This causes the digestive system to slow down or malfunction, causing constipation or diarrhoea, as well as cravings, bloating, cramps and spasms.

How can I get probiotics into my diet?

Many brands of yogurt advertise that they contain probiotics, however, since these are classed as foods not medicines, they are regulated differently, and it is therefore difficult to tell if:

– the product actually contains the bacteria stated on the food label
– the product contains enough bacteria to have a positive effect
– the bacteria it does contain are able to survive long enough to reach your gut and start working.

That is why it is usually more beneficial to take a probiotic supplement, where what you are taking and how much is clearly labelled.