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Probiotics explained

Just how do probiotics work and are they of real benefit?

Probiotics not placebo

“Since the health claims legislation of recent years it has become more difficult to make claims about probiotic products,” says Finn Murray of the Hopsack in Rathmines, Dublin. “Probiotics are not a new thing – they are not a placebo. They play a core role in the gut’s immune system and the bacterial cells that line the gut wall.”

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“Probiotics are beneficial bacteria and yeasts that are good for overall health,” according to Aisling Snedker, Clinical and Sports Nutrition Dietitian. “The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations gives the definition of probiotics as being live micro-organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit in the host. There is evidence that probiotics help to treat antibiotic associated diarrhoea and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), improve quality of life and shorten the duration of respiratory tract infections in over 65s.”

Real benefits

“In our experience in health stores we see serious benefits in gut health, hay fever symptoms and after repeated antibiotic use where probiotics selectively introduce good bacteria and encourage other strains to grow,” says Finn Murray. “In fact customers tell us health practitioners are increasingly recommending them. They also help in immune support and the stabilisation of IBS symptoms when used in combination with other help.”

“The reason why probiotics are becoming more important is linked to the recognition of how important the microbial environment of the gut is to overall health,” says Aisling Snedker. “Microbiota play an important role in reducing inflammation, helping us to fight off viruses and bacterial infections. If you do suffer with IBS, recurrent infections or have just taken antibiotics, probiotics can be helpful in your recovery. If you feel that you need a probiotic you also need to ensure that you are eating well.”

Read the label

“I would encourage people to look at the label,” says Finn Murray. “Look for the genus, such as lactobacillus; and the species, for example acidophilus. Then look for a strain number under the name. If there is a number (such as LP299V for example) this guarantees a certain level of efficacy, that it has been researched to penetrate the stomach acid barrier etc.”

“It’s best to choose a probiotic that includes a wide variety of probiotic strains and also yeasts,” says Aisling Snedker. “The roles that individual probiotic strains play in different parts of our health are emerging and ongoing research will help to identify which probiotics could provide specific benefits for people. In the meantime choose a broad spectrum probiotic.”

Billion bacteria

“Look for the amount of bacteria in a capsule at the time of expiry,” says Finn Murray. “For maintenance of gut health you need about 2 billion. Following antibiotic use or longer term gut issues you need 20-30 billion. It can take up to a month to feel the real benefits.”

The final word

“One thing we know for certain is that the microbiota in our gut are essential to our health, quality of life and well-being and we should consider it something that we need to take care of and protect.” - Aisling Snedker

Did you know?

“Some probiotics also include prebiotics which are the foods that bacteria in your gut would usually enjoy fermenting, but in people with IBS these prebiotics can actually exacerbate symptoms. So if you have found that probiotics have not suited you initially then check whether they contain prebiotics.” - Aisling Snedker

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