Pro- and Pre-biotics…why all the hype?

cartoon of good and bad bacteriaWe are so used to hearing how various branded yoghurt-like products are so good for us because they provide us with ‘good bacteria’ that help our digestion. I am talking about the likes of Actimel, Benecol, Yakult, to name but a few. But why should our digestion need help? If we believe in eating natural foods, why is this not enough, or is it?

The role of probiotics is indeed to provide our guts with a boost of good bacteria that help to digest our normal, natural foods. The problem, we are being told, is because of what we eat and the medications we sometimes take. We tend to eat and drink lots of sugary foods, or indeed processed foods that contain artificial flavourings, preservatives and enhancers, or take antibiotics, and we also ingest antibiotics unknowingly because the meat and fish we eat are often treated with antibiotics (See video link in references at the end of this blog text). As a consequence our ‘good bacteria’ don’t get enough of the natural foods they like, or get killed off, and the ‘bad bacteria’ that love the bad stuff we eat, or have become resistant to antibiotics, flourish.
So why is this a problem? Does it matter which bacteria inhabit our guts? Isn’t a bacteria just a bacteria………? And in any case isn’t is so small that it surely can’t make a difference…..?
Well his is where things get a bit more exciting.
It would appear that our good bacteria not only help us digest our food, but by doing so they use some of it to manufacture some pretty important stuff that they allow us to use in our bodies. That includes chemicals such as Serotonin, which is one of the most important neurotransmitters we produce, considered by some to be a hormone, that has the role of making us feel happy and contented and indeed balance our moods. And because there are trillions of bacteria in our gut, the fact that they are pretty small is not such an issue after all.
In fact, researchers now know that there is hugely more Serotonin made in our guts by good gut bacteria (if we have them) than there is made in the brain. And because we now also know that the link between the gut and the brain (that good old ‘gut feeling’) is a huge contributor to our wellbeing, moods and indeed our ability to use our brains effectively and efficiently, these little gut bacteria are turning out to be even more important than we may previously have thought.
So, if this is the chemical we need in order for our brains to function well, for us to feel relaxed and happy, then perhaps we should consider eating probiotics to make sure we get enough of these little mood-helpers.

And, this is not where the story ends for probiotics. There is a huge amount of research going on that looks at links between Obesity, Diabetes Type 2, MS, IBS and other autoimmune diseases, to gut bacteria. But this is an issue for keen ‘Googlers’ and not for my blog……at least for now.

In the meantime, to ensure the bad bacteria don’t just fight them off and kill them or even eat them up, it makes a lot of sense to reduce the amount of sugary foods we eat and drink to make sure we don’t give the bad bacteria the excess food and energy they want that enables them to conquer the good bacteria we want to keep.

This is where prebiotics come in to the picture.
Prebiotics are the foods that our good bacteria love and thrive on. Interestingly most cultures have their own traditional prebiotic foods that have been around for centuries and it is only in recent decades that we have lost track of some of these foods. They consist mainly of preserved, fermented vegetables such as German or Scandinavian Sauerkraut, Korean Kimchi. But naturally occurring foods such as garlic, onions, asparagus, jerusalem artichokes, chicory root are also typical prebiotic foods, packed with the fibres the probiotic bacteria love – especially in their raw, uncooked state.
The idea is that if we not only make sure we have the right bacteria flora in our guts, but we also feed them with what they love to eat on a regular basis, we will make them happy and healthy and ensure they keep our guts and brains happy and healthy too.

But there is one caveat here………..and sadly it brings me back to my soap-box as regards legislation and quality standards:

Firstly the scientists are still very divided on the merits of taking probiotics, and it is certainly advisable that you discuss it with your own doctor, as you should do with any supplements, if you are considering taking one.

In the meantime, doctors such as Dr Michael Moseley express their concerns that probiotic supplements could be killed off by our natural stomach acids before they have a chance to colonise our guts and take up their positions to fight off or resist the bad bacteria. On the other hand, food microbiologists, such as Dr Greg Leyer of UAS Laboratories,  confirm that although (certain) probiotic supplements have developed to withstand normal concentrations of stomach acid and bile, studies show that it is “important to maintain a continual onslaught of these healthy bacteria”.

At the same time, both sides of this argument seem to agree on the point that taking them in a sugary solution, such as that offered by sweetened yoghurt-type drinks, is potentially fuelling the bad bacteria and certainly adding insult to injury by making us take onboard more sugars than we need.
A bigger issue for me is that because probiotics and foods are not covered by legislation in the same way as medicines are, we have no current safety controls, standards or auditing rules that will ensure that what is described on the packaging is actually what we are getting.
I posed the question to a gastroenterologist a couple of weeks ago and he sadly agreed that it is possible that the probiotics we think we are taking are nothing but a collection of dead bacteria………..Perhaps they were live when they were bottled or packaged in the pill we bought, but we have no way of knowing for certain whether they are still alive when we buy them, or take them, until legislation forces quality standards on the companies that sell these products.
But don’t despair yet……..There are ethical companies that want to be delivering what they promise, so my decision has been to have faith and to go for the brands I trust. And beyond this, if there is a relatively long ‘use by’ date on the packaging, there is a reasonable chance the company producing the product is willing to risk it being tested for live bacteria by the growing army of scientists that are competing to get ahead in this field. I for one am also more convinced by the argument that the larger quantities of probiotic bacteria offered in the probiotic supplements, or those made by fermenting your own kefir, rather than those dripping with sugar in the yogurt-type drinks, are likely to be a better bet until legislation can give me a helping hand to make a better choice.
Ultimately, the proof is indeed in the eating, and if you feel you have more energy and feel better after a few weeks of taking any probiotic, the chances are you have found a good source of living bacteria that will do what you want them to do for you as long as you keep feeding them the right good foods and stay off the junk!

Good luck and please share any comments or experiences you have in the comments box below.
For more reading material on this subject, take a look at some of the following links or sedn me your question and I will happily research it for you:

1. For more information or to view Dr Greg Leyer interviewed by Dr Joseph Mercola, take a look at this link:

2. Gut microbes important for serotonin production

3. How the immune system helps good bacteria fight off bad bacteria