Prebiotics, probiotics, antibiotics — what’s it all about, and what works? HFG dietitian Melissa Meier explains the gut reaction behind your intestinal health.
Did you know a whopping 70 per cent of your immune system lives in your gut? Everything you put in your mouth has to pass through your digestive system, so it makes perfect sense that your gut is one of your best defence mechanisms.
A healthy gut is fundamental to your overall health — and an unhealthy digestive system can have dire consequences. In fact, an unbalanced gut is linked to a raft of conditions including diabetes, arthritis and depression. So, if you’re wondering what you can do to boost your gut health, here’s where to start.
Your brilliant microbiome
Trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other weird microscopic organisms have set up shop in your gut, and collectively they go under the name of the ‘gut microbiome’. Researchers discovered over the past decade that these microbes — which together weigh up to 2kg — are pivotal for your health.
While most people assume bacteria are bad, gut bacteria can actually be very beneficial. The balance of bacteria, however, is critical. You want the good guys in your gut — the ‘friendly’ bacteria— to outweigh the ‘bad-guy’ bacteria that can cause illness.
The variety of good bacteria is crucial too. Just as a thriving forest teems with a plethora of trees and plants, your digestive system needs a vast range of bacteria living harmoniously in your gut. The more diverse and lush that bacteria forest is, the healthier you are. And that’s where probiotics come in.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are living microbes — mostly bacteria — that create scientifically proven health benefits. You’ll find them in foods like yoghurt, or you can take them as a supplement. If you consume enough, they can improve the balance of healthy gut bacteria.
Some probiotics stop pathogens, some destroy harmful toxins, and some protect immune cells. Once inside your gut, probiotic strains can flourish, helping with digestion and producing protective substances.
You may have heard of probiotic-rich products like kombucha, kefir or tempeh. They’re an option, as are probiotic supplements, but you can get a healthy — and usually cheaper — dose of probiotics from foods like yoghurt, sourdough bread and sauerkraut.
Can probiotics help manage IBS?
Evidence suggests that supplements may help ease the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) — but the dose and exact strains that work are still unknown. There’s no harm in trying out a probiotic — but you may have to test a few brands to find one that works best for you. You’ll need at least four weeks to see results.
Why do doctors recommend taking probiotics after antibiotics?
While sometimes necessary during illness, antibiotics can wreak havoc on the balance of bacteria in your gut. Antibiotics don’t just wipe out the bad bacteria — they take out the good bacteria as well. So taking a probiotic supplement after a course of antibiotics helps rebuild the good bacteria that is so necessary to your gut health.
Should I take a probiotic supplement while travelling?
The jury on this is still out: some studies show probiotic supplements have a positive effect in reducing traveller’s diarrhoea, while others find it makes no difference. So, watch this space!
What about prebiotics?
Healthy bacteria feed on prebiotics — the fibrous, indigestible parts of fruit and veg. Without enough fibre, you risk starving your microbiome, which means your good gut bugs just won’t survive.
You’ll find prebiotics in chicory root, garlic, onion and bananas. Whole grains, especially rye, are also abundant, natural prebiotic sources.
Resistant starch is a specific type of prebiotic. Put simply, resistant starch escapes digestion in the small intestine and makes its way intact to the colon, where it helps produce short-chain fatty acids. These acids help provide a healthy lining for your colon. Look for resistant starch in underripe bananas, lentils, and cooked potatoes or rice that have cooled down
Foods to boost gut health
What you eat has a huge impact on your gut microbiome health — so add these 10 gut-friendly items to your shopping list today!
Check the label for at least 100 million CFUs to ensure the yoghurt contains beneficial bacteria.
This fermented milk drink is brimming with healthy bacteria. Use it in place of regular milk over breakfast cereal.
A starter culture of flour and water ferments to create yeast and lactic acid, which benefits your gut health. Slice away!
This low-sugar alternative to soft drink delivers gut-friendly health benefits. Check that there’s no added sugar.
Turn this savoury Asian paste made from fermented soybeans into a warming soup, or use it as a marinade.
(Chickpeas, beans, lentils) Enjoy them two-to-three times a week to add fibre, protein and healthy resistant starch to your meal.
Cooked and cooled potatoes, rice or pasta
Cooling starchy foods after cooking them increases their resistant starch.
Developed by CSIRO, this whole grain has four times the resistant starch of most other grains.
Garlic, leek & onions
Add flavour to your meals with these probiotic powerhouses.
Choose greener bananas, rather than spotty yellow ones,for more prebiotic punch.
How lifestyle impacts gut health
Stress influences your gut bacteria, with the growth of certain types of bacteria linked to a higher risk of anxiety and depression. Try to include in your routine stress-relieving activities such as yoga, meditation, calming music or reading.
Alcohol can foster the growth of certain bacteria that may increase bacterial toxins inside your gut — and also lead to inflammation. Aim for no more than two standard drinks a day.
A healthy gut loves lots of activity, so get moving! Physical activity also stimulates your gastrointestinal tract and keeps you regular. Go for 30 minutes exercise each day.
100 trillion microbes are thriving in your gut
Fibre-rich foods feed the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut