Give Your Gut a Dose of Friendly Bacteria

You may have heard the words – probiotics (friendly bacteria) and prebiotics (supplements containing probiotics). You may also have been told about the health benefits of yoghurt. Take these words

  • PublishedSeptember 27, 2011

You may have heard the words – probiotics (friendly bacteria) and prebiotics (supplements containing probiotics). You may also have been told about the health benefits of yoghurt. Take these words seriously and don’t forget to drink your yoghurt. Friendly bacteria cause fermentation of milk to what we call maziwa lala or yoghurt when processed, and a dose of this in your gut is healthy. When you take a prebiotic supplement or drink a tub of yoghurt, you are giving your gut a healthy dose of bacteria, which replace the nasty bacteria found in the gut. When milk is fermented into yoghurt, lactic bacteria synthesizes folate, an important B vitamin found in milk, while the lactobacilli present produce healthy, short-chain fatty acids, which are essential for immune system function. They work in effect at keeping the entire digestive system happy. This explains why communities that take fermented milk regularly have healthier digestive systems than those who don’t.

A healthy digestive system generally leads to overall good health, as the body is able to absorb nutrients more efficiently. Numerous studies by doctors and nutritionists, for example, one authored by Prof Anatoly Bezkorovainy and reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, have shown that probiotics are beneficial to your digestive system’s health, as they are believed to stimulate the immune system, increase absorption of nutrients and destroy diseasetriggering microbes often found in the gut. They are particularly good for people on antibiotics, or those with a weak immune system, or suffering from Candida, asthma, allergies or digestive problems.

Too many ‘bad’ bacteria in your digestive system will irritate the gut lining and enter the bloodstream, blocking absorption of nutrients and lowering immunity. If you want to boost your friendly bacteria you have several options. Probiotics can be found in fermented milk drinks or ‘live’ yoghurts, but you can also get them in soya milk, fruit juices or over-the-counter supplements found in pharmacies or health food stores. Prebiotics contain no live microbes but stimulate their growth in the intestine. Supplements are the most common way of taking probiotics and usually contain more strains of bacteria than probiotic drinks. One supplement can contain billions of live bacteria of different strains. Prebiotics often come in capsules, which are treated to aid absorption. Some are dual coated to ensure they reach the small intestines.

Although the benefits of probiotics are widely known, scientists are concerned about the different prebiotic products available and their effects. Of greater concern is the accuracy of the ingredient lists. Research published in UK by the Foods Standards Agency (FSA) in 2005 showed that some products tested did not display a profile of probiotics similar to what was stipulated in their labeling. The study also looked at the contents of different products and how they survived when they came into contact with stomach gastric juices. It concluded that gastric juices kill some probiotic microbes, but at least some of the bacteria survive beyond the stomach.

According to the FSA report, the best probiotics for surviving gastric juices are Lactobacillus spp, Bifidobacterium sp, Enterococcus sp and Lactococcus lactis sp. Tests also showed L casei shirota, L plantarum, L pentosus and L reuterii bacterium survive best in the lower intestines. You should therefore check for these ingredients on the label of your supplement.

When it comes to choosing which probiotic to take, get advice from a pharmacist, your doctor or nutritionist. It is also important to choose a product that names the strains of bacteria used and ensure at least some of those mentioned here are indicated. Those with a mixture of different strains may be more effective since microbes perform best at different points along the digestive tract. A combination offers the best chance that some will survive and f lourish. Taking probiotics with food at breakfast also boosts their chances of survival, as an empty stomach contains stronger digestive acids, which are likely to kill them. Ideally, take them regularly at the same time of day for continuous effect.


When traveling: Taking probiotics for five days before or during travel from your area or to a different country, especially where waterborne diseases are prevalent, will make you 30 per cent less likely to catch a bug.

After antibiotics: Antibiotics can kill ‘friendly’ bacteria along with the bug making you ill. Taking a probiotic, which contains Lactobacillus casei shirota, helps preserve the ‘friendly’ bacteria and avoid irritation of the stomach lining.

Irritated bowel syndrome (IBS)/gut disorders: Probiotics can rescue bloating and loose stools often caused by IBS and other gut problems. Since dairy products can exacerbate IBS, try supplements instead of taking yoghurt.

Stress: Intestinal f lora can be upset by stress. A daily dose of probiotic yoghurt and muesli is recommended. Yoghurt maximises the growth of bacteria, while muesli contains stress-busting B vitamins.

Constipation: Constipation symptoms improve for people on probiotics. You should try a supplement with Acidophilus probiotic.

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