Just about every week there’s a new diet fad capable of curing all ailments, often dubbed “what we should be eating”.
In tandem with extreme diets, like the “cave person” Paleo diet, natural medicines also picked up a more mainstream following. Enthusiasts promote popping vitamins left, right and centre, or getting a colonic every other week.
The latest natural medicine craze is probiotics. But like most diet fads, very few followers seem to know what they are and how they work. We’re here to demystify:
What is a probiotic?
A probiotic is a type of good bacteria which competes for survival alongside bad bacteria.
Eating plenty of good bacteria makes it harder for bad bacteria to survive – less food and space.
Eat enough probiotics and your body may start winning the war against bad bacteria which cause stomach upsets, irritable bowel problems, and even dental decay.
Probiotics are no new concept to many cultures. They are particularly prevalent in fermented foods like sauerkraut and Korean kim-chi where they occur naturally.
Cultures traditionally eating a lot of yoghurt have been thought to live longer thanks to the good work of the bacteria in the yoghurt.
Nobel Laureate Elie Metchnikoff discussed the positive properties of fermented milk as early as the start of the 20th century and is celebrated as the father of probiotics research.
Unfortunately, a typical western diet doesn’t usually include a lot of fresh fermented foods and it’s now down to the individual.
Longer life and more consistent bowel movements seem to be the biggest drawcards for probiotic users. Because many bacteria live in the human digestive system, this is where they can lend the biggest hand.
Sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome, bloating, gas, diarrhoea and constipation could benefit from regular doses of probiotics. For some, a simple digestive aid like probiotics is enough to ease discomfort and lift the spirits.
Probiotics are also able to produce vitamins and minerals good for all-over health. Research into the effects of probiotics on mental well-being is under way – watch this space. Scientists are working on isolating strains of bacteria which can target a certain ailment; for example, dental plaque or gum disease.
How to eat them
Because bacteria need so much help to survive outside the body, it is important to pick a product that works with your body and your lifestyle. If you want to simply maintain a healthy lifestyle and give yourself a bit of a boost, eating special probiotic yoghurt daily can keep things ticking over nicely, without too much expense. If you suffer a special condition it is best to have that condition diagnosed by a health professional or nutritionist. It may not be enough to simply dollop some yoghurt on your cereal.
Nutritionist and dietician Clarice Hebblethwaite specialises in digestive problems. Her 12 years of working with probiotics has taught that nothing is a miracle fix.
“You can’t just try find one thing, and expect it to do everything,” she says. She recommends probiotics as an addition to a healthy diet, but not as a one-stop shop. Clients with digestive problems are often put on a specialised diet to balance their system. Probiotics may be included as part of the nutritional plan.
Some probiotics are streamlined to deal with specific conditions so taking the wrong strain might not fix your problem, and could be a costly waste of time.
Hebblethwaite recommends seeing a nutritionist to make sure you have the correct strain and diet combination. She can recommend trusted products if you feel unsure of your own choices. Probiotics can be in yoghurt, fermented foods, lozenges, capsules, or powder form, so the choice can be overwhelming.
Finding the best probiotic
Not all probiotic products are created equal and it can be tricky to find the right one. If you don’t want to consult a nutritionist, here are some tips to find a good product.
Probiotics must be eaten alive.
If they have died, they will pass through your digestive system without effect. It is important to choose a manufacturer with good practices to ensure you get the most bang for your buck.
Manufacturers purchase probiotic bacteria from growers in large batches. When they are purchased they are alive and living in a specially formulated superfood.
The manufacturer then adds the probiotic to the final product. The more bacteria that make it to the final product alive, the better the result for you.
They are purchased by weight. Ideally the purchaser will buy the probiotic with the superfood attached. The superfood will keep them alive longer and give them a ready-made food source when you ingest them – survival rates in your body will be higher, and you will see more benefit. However, purchased with the superfood intact, the bacteria weigh more, and cost the manufacturer more.
Some will try and cut costs by buying the bacteria without its food source. These final products may be less effective even if they are cheaper for the consumer.
A little online research can identify products where the superfood is left on the probiotic when purchased and sold on to you.
They must be content.
Once purchased by a product manufacturer, they may be alive and kicking, but it is the storage and transportation of the finished product that are the real issues.
Probiotics need to be suspended in animation, ready to leap into action when inside the body, and not a moment sooner. They need a good food source (like yoghurt or their superfood), and most don’t like exposure to light, air, and heat.
While some probiotics can endure harsher conditions, most like to be stored in sealed, refrigerated packaging, hidden away from natural light.
Picking a product with the right packaging is a good start.
The more bacteria included, the better. You can check the label of any probiotic to find this.
Check the expiry date. Bacteria will not have a good chance of survival beyond this date.
Check they have been clinically tested. New Zealand has no formal standards for probiotics in food, so it’s important to pick a product properly tested.
Where are we headed?
Some medical professionals are now prescribing courses of probiotics to patients. Particularly after a round of antibiotics, probiotics can be used to populate the gut with good bacteria before a new wave of bad bacteria can set in. Probiotic enthusiasts such as research consultant and University of Otago professor emeritus John Tagg, hope the future will include probiotics as an alternative to mainstream drugs, tending towards a more natural solution in a society defined by drugs.
Probiotics are particularly effective in newborn babies, whose bacteria slate is completely clean. In the future, expecting or breastfeeding mothers could be dosed with particular probiotics to strengthen babies against bacterial infections, colds, and the like.
Work is also being done to develop probiotics for pets. They could be added to pet food to reduce tooth decay and other ailments.
PROBIOTICS A good bacteria which competes with bad bacteria inside the body. Probiotics eat the food supply and take up all the space, minimising bad bacteria. They can be isolated by scientists and cultured for specific use, like preventing sore throats.
ANTIBIOTICS Predecessor to probiotics. These bacteria wipe out all bacteria in the body, good and bad, leaving plenty of empty space for new colonies. The body is particularly vulnerable after a round of antibiotics. This is the perfect time to feed the body probiotics to give them the best chance of survival.