It may be an unsettling thought, but there are billions upon billions of microbes living inside you – and you need them to be healthy.
With our modern lifestyle and diet, the balance of these microorganisms is often thrown out of whack. But with so many probiotics on the shelf, topping up your beneficial bacteria is as easy as popping a pill.
Are probiotic supplements worth the expense though? Isn’t it enough to eat the right kind of foods? We asked experts to weigh in.
Probiotics and your gut
There are about 39 billion microbes in your body, says Dr Lizelle Zandberg, a lecturer in biochemistry at North-West University.
These microscopic organisms, of which there are an estimated 2 500 different types, work together to keep your body healthy.
“Most of them live in the gut and it’s thought they collectively weigh about 1,5kg,” says Hannes Snyman, a pharmacist from Pretoria.
All these microbes – which include bacteria, fungi and yeast – help regulate your digestive system, promote heart health, boost your immune system and even play a role in regulating your mood, says Roxanne de Beer, a dietitian from Johannesburg.READ MORE | Probiotics don't boost friendly bacteria
Sometimes it might be beneficial to give these tiny organisms a bit of a boost – and that’s where probiotics come in.
Probiotics are living microorganisms that you can add to the population of good bacteria in your gut to help your existing gut microbes do their job. They’re found in certain foods but can also be taken in capsule, pill or liquid form.
When should you take probiotics?
They’re often prescribed along with antibiotics because antibiotic treatment alters the gut microbiome. Research has shown that probiotics can help reduce the risk of side-effects such as diarrhoea and other gastrointestinal upsets.
Probiotics can also be taken to reduce gastrointestinal symptoms that aren’t due to acute illness, such as bloating, gas and constipation.
They’re predominantly safe to use, says Chanelle Retief, a dietitian from Kempton Park in Ekurhuleni, Gauteng.
But you don’t have to take a supplement. The good news is you can consume probiotics on a daily basis from a variety of foods.
“All dairy products contain probiotics and something like milk fresh from a farm contains a huge amount of lactic acid bacteria,” Snyman says. Yoghurt also helps replenish healthy gut bacteria.
“If you don’t consume dairy at all you can eat fermented foods to get your probiotics,” he adds. “People these days often don’t eat enough fermented and fresh foods, and in that case it’s a good idea to take a supplement that contains probiotics.”
Two of the most common ailments that probiotics can help with are diarrhoea and constipation, Snyman says. But it also has other benefits, such as improving immunity, and lactic acid bacteria lowers cholesterol, which aids heart health.
Probiotics can also improve your mood by increasing levels of serotonin, the feel-good hormone.
It’s about more than a supplement
Probiotic supplements are good but won’t be effective if your lifestyle isn’t healthy, Retief says.
“There are other factors to consider, such as your diet, sleeping patterns, how you deal with stress and what other supplements you use,” she says.
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How effective a probiotic is depends on the quality of the product, the health issue it’s meant to treat, as well as the individual’s genetic makeup, Zandberg says.
“Though I’d definitely recommend probiotics for the treatment of gut-related issues and symptoms, it’s not in everybody’s nature to routinely take pills.”
For those who don’t want to pop a pill, she advises including more fermented foods such as yoghurt in their daily diet.
Do you need a prescription?
You don’t need a prescription for a probiotic, says De Beer, but she recommends speaking to your doctor, a dietitian or a pharmacist before you buy one. Get an expert’s opinion about what kind and how much you should use.
“Not all probiotics are manufactured the same way and the dosage is important.”
There are many different probiotics on the market.
Choose a product that contains live cultures, Retief advises, because otherwise it won’t have the desired effect
Also, look for products called synbiotics – these contain probiotics as well as prebiotics, a form of dietary fibre that are a source of food for the good bacteria in your gut.
“Prebiotics help the probiotics survive in our bodies,” Retief says.
Are probiotics safe for kids?
Like adults, children also need good bacteria in their gut to aid a healthy digestive system.
“Children can absolutely take probiotics regularly,” Snyman says. “Enough good bacteria in their gut will help prevent constipation, which can be a problem for kids who have bad eating habits.
“And if they’re on antibiotics, they should take probiotics during as well as after the course of antibiotics.”
But there are many natural ways for kids to gain healthy microbes.
“Support your child’s microbiome by encouraging them to regularly play outside, where there are trillions of microbes. Or let them play with a pet,” De Beer suggests. “Just like for adults, a healthy, balanced diet full of variety is important. Encourage your kids to eat fruit, vegetables and wholegrains.”
Zandberg agrees. “The best way to ensure gut health in children is to make sure they eat healthy foods rather than processed foods full of sugar.”
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Are there side-effects?
Generally, probiotics are safe to use, Retief says. “There can be side-effects sometimes, especially during the first few days. These are extremely rare and include an upset tummy, flatulence, bloating and an allergic reaction.”
The dosage is important, so it’s vital to follow dosage instructions carefully.
The risk of side-effects is greater in people with a weakened immune system, Zandberg says. In such cases it’s especially important to consult an expert before using a probiotic.
You don’t have to spend money on supplements to get the probiotics you need. Stock up on these foods instead:
Pickles (fermented vegetables)
Certain cheeses, such as Roquefort
Kefir, a fermented milk drink