Do we need probiotic supplements?

Probiotics are live, “good” or “helpful” bacteria and yeasts which reside in our gut. We have a small number living in our stomach and small intestine, and a very large number, of different bacteria, living in our large intestine. Did you know that we actually have a larger number of bacteria in our gut than we have human cells, hence more bacterial DNA living in us that human DNA? 

We not only have bacteria living in our gut, but also on our skin and on mucous membranes such as those in the mouth and vagina. The sum of all these bacteria are called the human microbiome. When the bacteria in a certain part of our body is disrupted (in dysbiosis), this may lead to symptoms such as bad breath, vaginal infections and changes in our bowel movements (diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, etc.). The more research is done on the microbiome, the more we realise the importance of these bacteria and that they are not parasites, but that we live in symbiosis with them and that they are actually crucial for our health by helping us digest our food, making up the largest part of our immune system to producing hormones which affect various bodily systems including blood sugar response and satiety.

When reading the above, it is easy to conclude that yes, probiotic supplementation is necessary, but actually the answer to the title question is “no”. For most people at least. There are, however, a few groups of people who may benefit from probiotics, such as people with:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Those who were on a course of broad spectrum antibiotics and have trouble with their digestion afterwards

In the above cases, taking a probiotic for a few days or weeks may help repopulate the gut with certain bacterial strains. Also, depending on your condition, you will need to find the right probiotic strain hence not all probiotics are created equal! It is important to note however, that probiotic supplements only contain a few strains of bacteria, and we naturally have many many more living in our gut. The best way to repopulate the gut and get your bacteria in balance is by following a balanced and varied diet.

Just because most of us do not need a probiotic supplement, does not mean that our gut microbiome is in good condition. The old saying “you are what you eat” is very relevant here.  However, we could actually change it to “you are what you feed your gut bacteria”. We feed our gut bacteria (probiotics) with so-called prebiotics.

There are numerous different strains of bacteria living in our gut and each strain helps digest different foods by either fermenting  carbohydrates (including fibre), proteins or fats. The fermentation of proteins and fats typically causes the production foul smelling gas. The more protein and fat we eat (in lack of sufficient healthy carbohydrates), the more these “bad” bacteria multiply, eventually causing a dysbiosis. Ideally, we should stimulate the multiplication of carbohydrate fermenting bacteria, since these are most beneficial for us. Therefore, to feed our “good” bacteria we should enjoy more fermentable sugars i.e. carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are found in all plant-based foods, the more unprocessed the better, e.g.:

  • Raw and cooked vegetables (e.g. mushrooms, leek, onion, artichokes)
  • Root vegetables such as sweet potato
  • Legumes such as beans, lentils and chickpeas
  • Fruits
  • Wholegrains (e.g. pasta, oats, brown rice)

Probiotic foods, such as those naturally fermented are also beneficial because they contain actual “good” bacteria:

  • Bifidus yoghurt
  • Kefir
  • Raw sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Miso
  • Tempeh

Variety is key here since research has found that people living in different parts of the world actually have different gut bacteria compositions. This shows how eating certain foods actually helps certain bacteria grow. The less variety of foods we eat, the smaller the diversity of bacteria and the more likely we are to suffer from dysbiosis.

If you are based in Zurich, Switzerland and want to learn more about gut health, then come and join the experts on the 21.03.19 for an evening that’s all about your gut! Click here for more.

Ursula Rausch is a registered dietitian at Nutrition A-Z with a speciality in diabetes management, women’s health, digestive health and weight management.  Being bilingual, Ursula consults both in German and English. 

Leave a Reply