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Gut feeling

The digestive system is central to us feeling good, and there are a number of things we can do to keep it working well. Rude Health experts explore the role of natural bacteria in the form of prebiotics and probiotics

Probiotics are a strain of ‘good’ bacteria that may help promote gut health in your digestive system,” says Angela McGlanaghey of health store Simple Simon in Donegal town. “Prebiotics are a type of fibre that help those good bacteria thrive, so they help feed the ‘good’ bacteria.” “Probiotics are living microorganisms – when consumed in adequate amounts they have multiple health giving interactions with the gut,” says Grace Kinirons, nutritional therapist at health store Nuts & Grains in Mullingar. “Prebiotics are carbohydrates that we cannot digest such as fibre and resistant starch, which undergo a fermentation process by the microbiota resident in our guts.”

Prebiotic foods

“Foods containing prebiotics are widely available in our kitchens,” says Grace Kinirons. “The most studied prebiotic is inulin found in asparagus, artichoke, bananas, chicory, dandelion root, garlic and leeks. Other prebiotic foods include oat bran, apples, whole nuts and seeds and dried fruit such as figs and dates. Some people can find prebiotic foods difficult to digest, so introduce them slowly and in small amounts.”

Benefits of prebiotics

“The benefits of increasing prebiotics through diet or supplementation are that you are providing the raw material for specific gut bacteria to ferment,” says Grace Kinirons. “This fermentation process provides fuel for the other beneficial bacteria living in our gut in the form of short chain fatty acids. Prebiotics also assist our good bacteria to produce specific metabolites that beneficially affect all areas of our health, from mood to immunity.”

Probiotic foods

“Probiotic foods and drinks retain their live cultures due to the fermentation process,” says Grace Kinirons. “These include foods such as live yogurt, aged cheeses like cheddar and Gouda, and kefir. Fermented and pickled vegetables like kimchi and sauerkraut include probiotics, as do fermented soybean and barley malt such as miso, and fermented drinks like kombucha.”

Benefits of probiotics

“The benefits of probiotic foods and supplements are widespread, depending on the condition and what type of strain you are taking,” says Angela McGlanaghey. “For instance, acidophilus may be beneficial for problems in the high intestine such as indigestion. Then there are strains that may help clear up fungal problems such as oral thrush. However, probiotics are not a fix-all substance and it depends on the individual.”

“Modern science is proving Hippocrates’ theory that ‘all disease begins in the gut’,” says Grace Kinirons. “Research is now able to prove that imbalanced gut flora contribute to the development of a wide range of diseases from diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders and brain and mood disorders. Gut microflora are involved in so many physiological processes, from ensuring gut wall integrity, educating and interacting with our immune system, inhibiting the growth of pathogenic microorganisms, communicating with our brain via the vagus nerve, helping to detoxify and eliminate substances from the liver, communicating with our hormonal system and beneficially modulating fat and insulin metabolism. It makes sense to work with our amazing gut flora by ensuring we keep those beneficial bacteria at an optimum level.”

Other benefits include to hay fever symptoms, after repeated antibiotic use and in the stabilisation of IBS symptoms when used in combination with other help.

Reading the label

When buying a probiotic supplement, reading the label is important. Ask your local health store staff for advice, and look for the genus, such as lactobacillus; and the species, for example acidophilus. Then look for a strain number under the name. For maintenance of gut health you need about 2 billion bacteria in a capsule at the time of expiry, and for longer term gut issues you need 20-30 billion.

“Look for strains of bacteria that have been used in research trials such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium family,” says Grace Kinirons. “These bacteria have been tested for efficacy and stability, proven to survive stomach and bile acid and adhere to the wall of the gut. They have also been used in trials with pregnant women and newborn babies. Look for multistrain products to ensure you are getting a wide variety of beneficial bacteria. There are over 35,000 different strains of bacteria in our gut. A good probiotic supplement should be free from artificial colours, flavours, preservatives, GMOs and be hypoallergenic. It should also state how many live bacteria are in each capsule and the guaranteed bacteria count to the expiry date.”

“Some probiotics may work perfectly at 1-5 billion CFU (colony forming units) per day, where with other strains, particularly a mix of strains, may need a higher dosage ie 15-20 billion CFU per day to achieve optimal effect,” says Angela McGlanaghey.

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