Prebiotics and probiotics - do we really need them?

Since when did bacteria become ‘friendly’? Surely bacteria are germs, which is why we all need antibiotics at some time?  In fact, we need bacteria for our very survival. Our guts are stuffed full of bacteria which not only don’t hurt us, but do an essential job helping us to digest our food and reduce levels of harmful germs. Unfortunately, there’s a constant battle between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria, and sometimes the unhealthy bacteria get the upper hand. That’s where probiotics and prebiotics come in.

Since when did bacteria become ‘friendly’? Surely bacteria are germs, which is why we all need antibiotics at some time? In fact, we need bacteria for our very survival. Our guts are stuffed full of bacteria which not only don’t hurt us, but do an essential job helping us to digest our food and reduce levels of harmful germs. Unfortunately, there’s a constant battle between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria, and sometimes the unhealthy bacteria get the upper hand. That’s where probiotics and prebiotics come in.

Probiotics and prebiotics – what are they?

Probiotics are products which contain bacteria which help our guts to function effectively. The most common one is lactobacillus, which changes the acidity in our guts and may stop growth of other germs. The problem is working out which products have enough lactobacillus to get through the rest of our digestive system to reach the last part of our guts, where they do their good work.

Prebiotics don’t have bacteria at all. Instead, they contain food that isn’t digested in the first part of our systems. This means they make it intact to our large bowel, where they help healthy bacteria to thrive.

Can I get them in my diet?

Dairy products including yoghurt (and some non-dairy foods including sauerkraut!) have lots of lactobacillus. However, it’s not clear if enough of them survive the acid in our stomachs to have a major benefit. Some fruit and veg, including tomatoes and bananas, are high in prebiotics.

If you feel you’re in need of an extra pro/prebiotic boost, Danone’s Actimel® (lactobacillus probiotic) and the Bimuno® range (prebiotics) have good-quality medical proof behind them.

Does everyone need probiotics?

The very short answer is no. If you’re completely healthy, aren’t going into hospital and aren’t planning a holiday abroad, you don’t need them. However, there are lots of times when they can be useful.

Irritable bowel syndrome

One in five of us know the misery of IBS – its symptoms include wind, bloating and diarrhoea or constipation (or sometimes both!). The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommends that if you have IBS and try probiotics, you should carry on taking them for at least four weeks to get the best chance of benefit.

Preventing diarrhoea with antibiotics

Let’s face it, diarrhoea is never fun. But in older people, it can cause serious complications like dehydration and kidney damage. While probiotics and prebiotics don’t stop this altogether, they may cut the risk of getting diarrhoea, if you’re taking a course of antibiotics. Danone’s Actimel® product has evidence for this.

Serious gut infections in hospital

A particularly nasty germ called Clostridium difficile can cause severe diarrhoea, especially in older people in hospital who need antibiotics. Taking a probiotic containing lactobacillus has been shown in a hospital study to cut this risk very effectively. Lactobacillus may not be on the hospital canteen menu, but it may be worth taking a regular supply to your loved one while they’re in hospital

Supplements – all good or all hype?

Fact – we don’t all need vitamin supplements if we have a healthy diet. However, at some points in your life they can be invaluable:

  • Early pregnancy. Take folic acid supplements (400 micrograms a day) from before you get pregnant until three months in.
  • Vitamin D. Lots of us – especially older people and those who don’t get out in the sunshine – are short of this bone-builder. If that sounds like you, ask your doctor about a blood test to see if you need supplements.
  • Calcium. Good food sources include dairy products and fish with bones. You need 750 mg a day.
  • Not eating well because of illness? Drink supplements on prescription may be needed for vitamins, minerals and energy.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.