Probiotics – why all the sudden hype?
Probiotic has become a new buzzword after seldom having been heard by most of us during our growing years. The reason for the hype is that they are very necessary for our physical and mental health. So important, in fact, that they have been termed a ‘new essential food group’. It is possible that in the past, our diets, lifestyles and medications were less harmful to the population of probiotics that we need in our body. That’s most likely the reason that we haven’t all been as aware of their importance as we are of other food groups, namely proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.
The term ‘probiotics’ is derived from the Greek: pro as in ‘promoting’ and biotic, meaning ‘life’. It is a term covering a wide range of different microbes that live in our digestive tracts and doesn’t only refer to the limited few commonly found in or added to some foods, such as natural yoghurt, aged cheese, the recently popular kefir drinks, and so on. Because our foods might not include all the probiotic strains that we need and because anti-biotics and other medications tend to destroy healthy probiotics, we often don’t have enough of them to really function well. This also means that other, potential harmful, bacteria can multiply and thrive, causing an imbalance.
The result is obviously that our digestive system suffers but the impact goes further. Our immune system relies on probiotics for proper functioning and if we lack a sufficient supply, our immune system begins to overreact, cause inflammation, allergies, intolerances and frequent illnesses. A faulty immune system can also turn against the body’s own cells, causing autoimmune disorders, such as eczema, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, asthma, colitis, Crohn’s disease and even ‘ADHD’ .
Because foods containing probiotics are no longer part of our diets – for example, naturally fermented vegetables – and other popular foods such as sugar encourage the growth of harmful microbes – many of us resort to supplements to try and maintain a healthy gut. This might not be enough because in order to thrive, probiotics need certain nutrients. These are called prebiotics.
Every time we eat, even if it’s a quick snack, we tinker with the delicate balance of microbes in our bodies. We should concentrate on feeding the healthy probiotics while starving the bad microbes. The best prebiotic is dietary fibre, which is found in fruit, vegetables and whole grains. We can’t digest fibre but probiotic microbes thrive on it. Prebiotics can also be found in certain fats, tea, herbs and spices, red wine and dark chocolate.
Many children try to avoid eating the foods their bodies most need. Because of this, our ‘picky’ eaters are most in need of supplementation. And it is not surprising that many of these children are prone to health conditions, including brain health, like attention and learning problems. This can make the situation even worse because frequent bouts of sinusitis, colds, chest complaints, ear infections and the like often result in a prescription for antibiotics, once again depleting the probiotic population.
Taking probiotics with antibiotics
Keep in mind that even though your doctor may prescribe a course of probiotics along with an antibiotic, the way you take these may make a difference. When taking an antibiotic, protect the microflora in the following ways:
- Once the medication begins, take a total of two or more doses of probiotics during the day. Don’t consume them with the antibiotics. If they’re in the stomach at the same time the probiotics will be killed by the antibiotics. Keeping the digestive system supplied with probiotics is difficult, because many will be killed by the antibiotics even if they are taken separately.
- Try to eat a wide variety of probiotics. A supplement should preferably contain at least 10 billion CFU (Colony-forming units, or otherwise, live microbes) and hopefully more than six different probiotic strains.
- Eating prebiotics to support the probiotics is important. Try to avoid refined carbohydrates (bread, flour, sugars, pastas, cookies, cakes, etc). This supports the probiotics and helps them compete against the harmful bacteria.
- Continue taking at least one extra dose of probiotics per day for at least a week after the antibiotic course is finished. Even though the medication has stopped, there is still quite a battle going on in the gut.
What probiotic supplements to buy?
You’ll find plenty of probiotics in chemists and health food shops, not to mention on-line suppliers. It is, however, best to buy supplements from a source where they’re kept under refrigeration. Also consider if the shop is likely to sell these products regularly and replenish stocks often. Unlike vitamin pills, probiotic supplements contain living organisms. If they’re not properly stored or stored for too long, they can die even before you buy them. Keeping them cold helps prolong their lives.
You’ll also need to choose a reputable brand. Here it may be wise to ask the advice of your pharmacist or do an on-line search for the company producing the product. Even then, you don’t have any guarantee that products actually contain the stains listed on the label, or that the microbes are still viable, or that they’re free from contamination. Sadly, some American studies have shown that ineffective products are common.
Companies that also produce medications or food may be better sources of a supplement because they are generally held to strict standards for their products. Manufacturers may include references on their websites to scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals or state that they’ve submitted their products to independent laboratories for testing.
Check the expiry date.
Look for the number of CFUs in the supplements. You need at least 10 billion of six or more strains.
Finally, be very cautious of cheaper products. You usually pay more for capsules or packets that contain more CFU and more strains. This, and assured quality, means that the higher priced options may just be money well spent.
The recommendations in this post have been based on scientific opinion but aren’t meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You may want to speak to your medical doctor about these issues before giving your children or yourself probiotic supplements.
 Dr Gary Huffnagle, 2007, The probiotics revolution. Vermilion: London
 Dr Amy Myers, 2015, The Autoimmune Solution. HarperCollins: New York