The power of probiotics for gut health

For a healthy gut and immune system, make sure your diet includes a regular dose of probiotics.

On an average day, our gut is home to more than 100 trillion bacteria that mostly live in the intestines.

They play a vital role in fending off common problems such as gastroenteritis and diarrhoea, but they play a broader role in our body and general health.

Good gut bacteria strengthen and maintain our immune system. Scientists believe they may also help control inflammation in our body that can be linked to serious illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease, heart conditions and some cancers.

US researchers found a diet rich in healthy gut bacteria is good for the brain, too. Using imaging techniques, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) scientists found the brains of women who ate yoghurt showed lower levels of stress.

“Many of us have a container of yoghurt in our refrigerator that we may eat for enjoyment, for calcium or because we think it might help our health in other ways,” says Dr Kirsten Tillisch, an associate professor of medicine at UCLA.

“Our findings indicate that some of the contents of yoghurt may actually change the way our brain responds to the environment. When we consider the implications of this work, the old sayings ‘you are what you eat’ and ‘gut feelings’ take on new meaning.”

Dietitian Charlene Grosse says probiotics are helpful when we’re fighting infections, feeling run down or when good gut bacteria become depleted, such as when we’re taking antibiotics.

But don’t take probiotics at the same time as antibiotics – take them after the course or at least have a two-hour break between taking an antibiotic and a probiotic, Charlene says.

Probiotics are found naturally in foods including plain yoghurt, sauerkraut, miso and kefir. You can also get them in over-the-counter supplement form.

What are probiotics?

The most common healthy bacteria in probiotic foods and supplements are lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium bifidum.

Lactobacillus acidophilus is mostly found in the small intestine and helps strengthen immunity against bad bacteria, such as E coli and salmonella. The latter lives in the large intestine, fights bad bacteria and increases absorption of nutrients such as iron and calcium.

Fermented foods a source of probiotics

When fermented foods, a naturally occurring probiotic, are consumed regularly they restore a healthy balance of gut flora, dietitian Annica Marks says.

“This protects against the over-production of stress hormones in the brain, and reduces the onset of IBS symptoms associated with anxiety,” she says.

Eating a diet rich in whole grains, unprocessed meats, fruits and vegetables is important, but Annica also recommends adding sauerkraut (the kind you get in the refrigerated section of your grocery store) to your salads, and replacing hot drinks with kombucha tea.

Shop for probiotic supplements at Chemist Warehouse.