Gut health 101: What are probiotics, how do they work and why you shouldn’t overdose

Gut health 101: What are probiotics, how do they work and why you shouldn’t overdose
Woman doing a yoga pose.
Woman doing a yoga pose.

When we hear the word ‘bacteria’, we associate it with unhealthy germs and then rush to pop probiotic supplements. Here’s the lowdown on how they work.

Up until a few years ago, medical professionals paid little attention to the bacteria stored in the lower gut.

Today, through research on the topic, we know that a healthy gut is maintained by a balance of good and bad bacteria. This is simply because more of the good means that you have fewer chances of suffering from a wide range of diseases.

Did you know that about 80 percent of your immune system resides in the gastrointestinal tract? This means that the state of your gut has a powerful influence on the rest of your body.

A healthy gut is made up of a thriving number of beneficial bacteria that support the immune system. This helps to form a barrier within the colon and intestines. By optimising the beneficial bacteria in your gut, you’re ultimately aiding your overall health and well-being.

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We know that probiotics are a necessary part of staying healthy, but have you ever wondered exactly how they work and what their benefits are?

Probiotics unpacked

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts, says Dr Nazmeera Gani, a Joburg-based general practitioner. They’re commonly known as “good bacteria” because they assist with digestion and the breaking down of nutrients in order to modify the pH of the gut.

Taking probiotics on a regular basis is very beneficial, and can improve the condition of the digestive tract in cases such as irritable bowel syndrome, irritable bowel disease, infectious diarrhoea and Crohn’s disease.

In a nutshell, probiotics are an integral assistant to the body, Gani explains.

Here are other functions:

Enhancing the immune system: probiotics are believed to promote the production of natural antibodies, in the body, that inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut.

Decreasing allergies: this includes eczema and atopic dermatitis in children and infants. Promoting weight loss: certain probiotics can assist with losing weight as they keep you feeling satiated for longer, burn more calories and store less fat.

Boosting cardiovascular health and hyperlipidemia: probiotics may help keep your heart healthy by lowering bad cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

Improving mental health: an increasing number of studies link mood and mental health disorders with gut health.

Studies have found that supplementing the “friendly bacteria” to maintain a healthy digestive tract (stomach and intestines) for as little as 1-2 months can improve stress, anxiety and depression. It can also decrease chances of colon cancer.

“Added to your diet, probiotics may also prevent toxins from entering your system, aid with vitamin production and may reduce cholesterol and the build-up of illnesses associated with the gut and digestive organs,” explains Elenia Kolokotronis, a clinical nutritionist.

For moms-to-be who supplement with probiotics during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, the good news is that they also assists with weight loss after the baby’s arrival.

In addition, there are many benefits for the newborn as well, such as preventing colic, gastrointestinal distress and cramps, Kolokotronis adds.

Healthy gut

Probiotics, which consist of different strains of bacteria and yeasts, assist in creating balance in the body, specifically in the gut. They aid in replenishing depleted gut bacteria when needed, Gani explains.

“Because of this, probiotics may ultimately boost the immune system, aid with digestion and keep the entire body functioning at its best,” she adds.

In the event of illness that requires a course of antibiotics, it’s important to monitor the usage of antibiotics and probiotics, Gani cautions. When you are sick and have been diagnosed with a bacterial infection, you’ll be given an antibiotic to kill the harmful bacteria and inhibit its growth. The antibiotics will, however, also affect the good bacteria in your gut.

“This predisposes you to Antibiotic Associated Diarrhea (AAD). AAD occurs in approximately  percent of patients on antibiotics. Results have shown a reduction in AAD when probiotics are administered with antibiotics,” Gani explains.

In this case, you’ll want to start a probiotics course the same day as the antibiotics, but not at the same time. The rule of thumb, Gani says, is to take the probiotic two hours before or two hours after the antibiotics. This allows the antibiotics time to work without killing off the good bacteria.

The probiotic will also help reduce unwanted side effects, like diarrhoea, cramps and vomiting. Both experts recommend that you continue to take probiotics for a few weeks after the antibiotic treatment to ensure that the digestive tract returns to normal.

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Too much of a good thing

On the flipside, there are some negative effects of taking high doses of probiotics. This includes having too much gas, experiencing bloating and diarrhoea. There are also instances when taking too much probiotics can overstimulate your immune system, which can affect your metabolism.

Probiotics, in essence, are the builders of good bacteria that help fight off the oversupply of bad bacteria, thus balancing the negative side effects of antibiotics.

Gani explains that probiotics are measured in colony-forming units, or CFU, which is used to estimate the number of good bacteria in a dose. Each product is different, but typically a probiotic should have to 1-20 billion CFU per day, which is about 250-500 mg per dose. For children, the dosage is 2-10 billion CFU per day, which translates to 250 mg per day.

“The most ideal way to get your daily dose of probiotics is to eat home-made fermented vegetables. Other foods with a good source of probiotics are Indian lassi (Indian yoghurt drink), kefir and yoghurt made from raw milk or fermented soy,” she advises.

“If you can’t get probiotics from food, then take a high-quality probiotic supplement that can supply you with all the essential bacteria strains,” Gani advises.

You no longer have an excuse for an imbalance. Let’s optimise our health — we have a good “gut feeling” about this one!

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