The insider knowledge on helping your gut with probiotics

woman holding tummy
Suffer from low moods, bloating or IBS? This one is for you. Photo credit: Getty.

Gut health. It's one of those things we all know we need to improve, but sometimes it can be tough to actually put into practice. 

With almost everything enriched with probiotics these days - vodka kombucha anyone? - it's bamboozling to know exactly what we should be doing to feed our gut and what we should be avoiding. 

We asked Nutra-Life Naturopaths Lynley Baker and Kelly McGillivray, to give us the down-low on probiotics, prebiotics, and everything in between.

If you struggle with bloating, low energy, IBS this one - this one is for you. 

What are probiotics, and what's the difference between them and prebiotics?


Probiotics are live microorganisms (bacteria of various species) that naturally live in the human body providing beneficial effects for human health. In the digestive tract, these organisms provide health benefits such as supporting digestive health, providing nutrients (including vitamins or fatty acids that fuel energy) through their metabolism of food particles, as well as keeping less beneficial microorganisms that also naturally reside in our bodies in check. 

Collectively, this group of bacteria we host, both good and bad, is commonly known as our microflora (although the more correct term is 'microbiota') and we have evolved over the course of human inheritance on this planet with these little microbes inside us. We have local collections of microflora that differs in its natural makeup depending on the area of the body in question, such as our digestive tracts, our mouths, our urogenital tracts, even on our skin. The area with the most diverse make-up of bacterial species is our digestive tract which is home to trillions of these microscopic species of around 1000 known species.

Research shows having a healthy balance of beneficial microorganisms in our digestive tract is associated with various positive health outcomes including strengthening the integrity of our intestinal lining, harvesting energy from food, protecting against pathogens and helping to support our immunity. Research also shows that a variety of negative health conditions have a corresponding negative balance of microorganisms. Everyone has their own unique make-up of microflora, but many dietary and lifestyle factors can have an influence on the overall balance and variety of these species. 

Prebiotics actually refers to the fibrous nutrients that prebiotics use as food and fuel via the process of fermentation.

What are the benefits of taking a daily probiotic?


Modern daily life throws numerous insults against the beneficial strains of bacteria in our gut which can compromise the healthy balance we strive to maintain.

Our natural balance of healthy flora can be disrupted by processed foods, restricted or non-varied diets, medications, chlorinated water, smoking, alcohol consumption, low-fibre intake, poor sleep, poor health, lack of exercise etc. With these many factors known to affect our healthy microbial balance, it makes sense to help to compensate for this potential loss of beneficial species by supplementing with additional health-promoting strains. 

A lot of trendy foods at the moment are probiotic - which ones should we be including in our diets?


One of the good ways to optimise your gut microbiome is to eliminate sugars and processed foods and eat traditionally fermented foods every day. Some of the more popular fermented foods include;

Yoghurt is one of the most popular and widely consumed probiotic-rich foods. Unfortunately, a lot of yoghurts from the supermarket contain little benefit. For quality, beneficial bacteria use raw, organic and plain unsweetened yoghurt.

Kefir is another probiotic-rich dairy product available in most supermarkets, and unlike yoghurt, many people who are lactose intolerant can drink kefir without issue. The beverage is also higher in probiotics than yoghurt. Kefir can be made from animal or nut milk (including coconut milk or water). 

Fermented vegetables like sauerkraut or kimchi are a great source of live friendly bacteria - for the best quality either make your own or look for them in your supermarket or health food store in the refrigerated section.

Can you get all your probiotic needs through foods, or should you be supplementing?


Whilst fermented foods have been used for thousands of years to support the health of traditional societies, the fact that modern, westernised societies tend not to use these foods as 'staples' suggests we may need more than the odd addition of sauerkraut to meals, or a kefir drink on occasion. Generally speaking, using fermented foods as part of our daily diet is important for health, but for those who find this difficult to achieve, supplementing with a probiotic can make it easier and enables you to quantify exactly which species and strains and how much of these beneficial organisms you are actually consuming. However, for some people, too much of something good can be a bad thing!

Can you have too much good bacteria in your gut?


Nothing about human health exists in isolation, and too much of anything - good or bad - is usually not part of the recipe for optimal health. It might sound boring - but grandma was right about moderation! For some, over-consuming fermented foods or probiotics may actually contribute to their health problems, particularly if other aspects of their healthcare is not being properly implemented or kept-up. For example, for someone with SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, where bacteria inhabits the small intestine instead of the large intestine (colon) where they ought to be) supplementing with extra probiotics may not be helpful at all, and may in fact contribute to the bloating and gassiness they feel. Also, for those prone to migraine or headaches, the naturally occurring protein amines that exist in aged/fermented foods can trigger or worsen their headaches. 

Additionally, microflora species all produce 'by-products' - the end outcome of their metabolic processes. These are typically what contribute health benefits to us, such as the fatty acids that contribute to our energy needs. But they can also contribute negatively to health - for instance, flooding the digestive tract with beneficial flora may be a useful exercise to 'crowd out' pathogenic strains of bacteria. 

This 'die-off' response otherwise known as a 'detox reaction' is what is usually being experienced when we feel initially unwell (achey, headachey etc) when we are undertaking a detox. Even beneficial strains can produce by-products that may contribute brain-fog, gas or bloating that may be related to the type of probiotic species being used and may contribute to a situational dysbiosis like SIBO. 

This is why it's important for people not to 'self-diagnose' and 'self-prescribe' but to seek advice from a suitably qualified health professional who can help them make the right choice based on their overall health picture and current needs.