Probiotics are flying off the shelves in grocery stores, as research continues to confirm the important role that gut microbes play in our overall health. But not all sources of probiotics are created equal. UBC’s Siyun Wang, assistant professor in the faculty of land and food systems, explains what these helpful little organisms are—and how to get them working for you.
What kind of health benefits do probiotics provide?
They help to maintain the health of your gut. Your gut microflora actually plays a very important role in health. When your gut microflora isn’t healthy, you are more susceptible to infectious diseases, obesity and irritable bowel syndrome.
Probiotic bacteria can help reestablish healthy microflora in the gut. They also produce a more acidic environment, which is less favourable to pathogenic, or disease-causing bacteria.
What exactly are probiotics?
Probiotics are actually living microorganisms. The majority of them are lactic acid bacteria belonging to two categories: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. You often find these listed on yogurt labels. Researchers are finding that an increased proportion of these two bacteria present a healthier microbial population in the gut.
What are sources of probiotics?
In general, yogurt and kefir are considered to be the top probiotic food products. Fermented foods like miso, kimchi and pickles are also sources. But to get a benefit from probiotics you have to consume them regularly. One shot of yogurt every two weeks is not going to be beneficial. These are living organisms, and enough of them have to survive the journey through your digestive system to get to your intestinal tract. They have to be consumed in adequate amounts, and they must be constantly supplemented.
Are probiotic supplements a good option?
That depends on whether the supplement contains enough probiotics, and if they are designed in a way that enough of them will reach your gut. Another important thing to consider is whether there is a food source for these probiotic organisms to multiply. If you want to establish healthy microflora you have to provide what they want to eat as well—what we refer to as prebiotics. These are non-digestible carbohydrates, or fibre.
Many probiotic supplements also contain fructo-oligosaccharides, which is a common prebiotic. Check the label to make sure you have both the living probiotic organisms and their food source.
Is it a good idea to take them if you are on antibiotics?
This would depend on which sort of antibiotics you are taking. Some antibiotics are broad spectrum and work on a variety of organisms, while others have a more narrow effect. In general, when people are taking antibiotics, it will have an effect on their gut as well. So taking probiotics during and after antibiotic treatment could be helpful.