The gut (digestive tract) has many functions within our body, primarily assisting the breakdown of food to allow its absorption into the blood stream. The gut contains trillions of both beneficial ‘good’ bacteria and harmful ‘bad’ bacteria which is collectively known as the gut microbiome.
A disbalanced microbiome (known as dysbiosis) can occur when the balance between good bacteria and bad bacteria is not maintained. It is more common today due to modern changes to our diet, lifestyle, medications, and stress levels. The microbiome affects a wide range of functions including digestion, metabolism, immune support, heart and emotional health and weight/obesity. Dysbiosis can cause these functions to become altered, leading to many health issues that can include inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, weight gain, depression, and lowered immunity.
Ways you can maintain a balanced/healthy microbiome
- Eat a diet low in sugar, processed foods, alcohol and caffeine
- Eat high fibre foods (or use a fibre supplement)
- Quit smoking
- Include prebiotic/probiotic foods
- Eat resistant starch (cooked and cooled potatoes, pasta and rice, oats, legumes, green bananas)
- Consume fermented foods
- Avoid restrictive diets and artificial sweeteners
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain adequate sleep
- Limit antibiotic use
- Take a probiotic and/or prebiotic supplement
The role of Probiotics and Prebiotics
The term ‘probiotics’ is used to describe live microorganisms that are able to help maintain microbiome balance and promote health. They include both bacteria and yeasts, the main species being Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Bacillus, Enterococcus and Saccharomyces. Probiotics can be found in supplements and foods such as plain natural yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and tempeh. Each bacterial species has several strains that show large variability in their probiotic and therapeutic actions. Therefore, certain strains are selected for specific therapeutic outcomes.
Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that can increase the activity of selected ‘good’ bacteria. Prebiotics naturally occur in bananas, asparagus, leeks, onions, garlic, chicory and wholegrains like wheat, rye, barley and oats and can be included in supplements. Symbiotics are products that contain both probiotics and prebiotics.
Your pharmacist can advise you on maintaining good gut health and when taking probiotics may be useful. Your pharmacist can also advise you on appropriate storage conditions and stability, as bacterial strains are often unstable at room temperature for prolonged period of time.