The health benefits of probiotics explained
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Probiotics are good bacteria found in supplements or food products that can help to balance the gut bacteria. Restoring your gut bacteria can help your body work at its best or target the symptoms of a number of health conditions, from IBS to migraines. However, taking probiotics is a delicate art and you need to get it right to reap the benefits. Express.co.uk chatted to Hannah Braye, Nutritional Therapist from Leading Gut Health Brand, Bio-Kult (www.bio-kult.com) to find out everything YOU need to know about taking probiotics.
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts promoted as having various health benefits, and the most common way to take them is via a food supplement.
The purpose is to restore the natural balance of bacteria in your gut (including your stomach and intestines) when it’s been disrupted by a condition, unhealthy habits or taking things like antibiotics.
According to the NHS, there’s some evidence that probiotics may be helpful in some cases, such as helping prevent diarrhoea when taking antibiotics and helping to ease some symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Probiotics are perfectly safe to take and could be life-changing for some people, but it’s important to know how to take them before you invest in pricey supplements.
How long should probiotics take to work?
There’s not a ‘one size fits all’ route to taking probiotics, but it’s worth knowing how long it takes at the minimum for probiotics to work so you don’t waste your money
According to Hannah, the benefits seen from taking a live bacteria supplement will vary from individual to individual based on a number of factors for example, why they are taking the product (e.g. for preventative wellness or to address a symptom or manage a condition), the level of dysbiosis (imbalance) they have in their gut microbes, their underlying health and other dietary and lifestyle factors.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) who choose to try a live bacteria supplement should take the product for at least four weeks, whilst monitoring the effects.
The Nutritional Therapist said: “I would suggest, a longer period of at least two months may be useful, as it can take some time to address imbalances in the gut that have been caused over multiple years.”
Still clueless about taking probiotics? Here are the three do’s and don’ts of taking probiotics.
Keep it up
As mentioned, you can’t just take probiotics for a couple of weeks and then give up.
Live bacteria supplements are generally considered safe to be taken regularly on an ongoing basis.
However, there are some exceptions to this rule as some people may just use them at specific times such as after antibiotics, whilst travelling abroad, to alleviate a symptom, eradicate an intestinal pathogen (disease-causing microorganism) or to support immunity during the winter months.
Hannah said: “Many people don’t realise that probiotics are generally considered transient in nature, and do not colonise the gut.
“They exert beneficial effects as they move through the intestines, for example, changing the pH, supporting the immune system and the health of the gut lining, before being excreted in the stools after a few days to weeks.
“This helps to create an environment more favourable for your own resident bacteria.”
However, you’re probably better off taking a low dose of probiotics for a longer time than taking strong tablets for a month or so.
She explained: “Regular low-level exposure to beneficial bacteria through daily supplementation (rather than short-term doses) more closely mimics how we would have traditionally been exposed to bacteria in nature, when historically we would have been living and working outside more and in closer proximity to animals.
“This regular exposure helps to keep the immune system alert and healthy.
“Many people no longer have this kind of exposure to a wide variety of micro-organisms and many aspects of modern life (such as medications, stress, toxins and pollutants, poor diet, lack of sleep etc…) have been shown to have a negative impact on gut bacteria levels.”
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You can’t overdose
Probiotics are safe and it’s nearly impossible to overdose on them.
The human digestive tract hosts trillions of bacteria, and therefore overdosing on live bacteria supplements, for example, by taking two at the same time would be practically impossible.
However, when introducing live bacteria to the digestive tract or increasing dosage, some people may experience some side effects such as bloating, flatulence, cramping or a change in bowel movements.
Hannah explained: “This is more common in people suffering from dysbiosis (an imbalance of the gut microbes) and these symptoms usually subside after a few days or weeks as the gut ecosystem settles.”
To avoid the risk of such symptoms, the probiotic expert recommends introducing products one at a time and increasing the dose gradually over a few days or weeks.
If you’re wanting to start taking two at once, it’s worth noting that some brands such as Bio-Kult produce products that can be safely taken together.
However, Hannah warned: “Some products contain additional nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, so ensuring you are not exceeding recommended amounts is important if taking multiple supplements at a time.”
Take with food
There are different schools of thought about the best time to take probiotics, but most experts believe they should be taken just before or with a meal.
Hannah said: “Some studies suggest that taking a probiotic 30 mins before or with a meal may enhance the viability of the bacteria compared to taking it 30 minutes after, due to the buffering effect of food against the low pH (acidity) of the stomach.
“People may also prefer to take the capsules with food to ensure greater compliance.
“Some research also indicates that survival of the bacteria may be enhanced by taking probiotics with foods containing fat.”
However, when you take the supplement and what you take it with isn’t the be-all and end-all.
Hannah pointed out: “Some probiotics, such as Bio-Kult, are manufactured using a cryoprotective coating that is applied to the individual bacteria, which is thought to potentially offer additional protection against the acidity of the stomach.
“For example, an independent laboratory carried out in vitro testing of the Bio-Kult strains at an acidic pH of two, for two hours and no significant loss in the viability of the organisms was seen.
“This is a harsher environment than you would expect to see if consumed with a meal, therefore consumption without food may also be fine.
“This may vary between probiotic brands based on their manufacturing processes, so it’s best to contact the manufacturer to ask.”
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