The microbiome and probiotics – do we need them and what do they do?

Did you know that you carry around trillions of bacteria?

It’s not as scary as it sounds. We need this bacteria to perform vital functions in our bodies. It helps us digest our food; makes some important vitamins; attacks infections and viruses in our bodies and stops ‘bad’ bacteria from taking up residence inside us.

Each of us has a unique, individual population of bacteria. It lives in various places: our skin, mouth, nose, pharynx, vagina and in our gut. This individual population is known as the microbiota. You might have heard of the microbiome, too: this term describes the genetic material of the microbiota; it’s our bacterial ‘fingerprint’ and it’s different in everyone. A 70kg person carries around about 40 trillion bacteria, weighing a couple of kilos.

By far the majority of our microbiota live in the gut. And it’s these gut bacteria that are the focus of scientific attention. Emerging research suggests that our microbiota can affect almost every aspect of our health. This opens up huge possibilities in potential treatments and interventions to solve some of our most pressing health problems. Some of the more interesting links between gut bacteria and health include these examples:

  • Gut bacteria plays an important role in our immune systems, starting from birth, when our immune system is established based on bacteria we acquire from our mothers. As adults, a diverse gut flora means our immune system stays in balance and may play a role in supporting the gut’s own immune defences.
  • If you’ve ever had butterflies in your stomach, or a ‘nervous tummy’ when you’re stressed, you’ve felt the communication between gut and brain. The gut-brain axis – the two-way communication system between our central nervous system and our gastrointestinal tract – is an increasing focus of research attention. It’s now thought that balanced gut bacteria could support emotional balance and a balanced mood.
  • Scientists around the world are investigating the possibility that healthy gut bacteria could affect how fats and carbohydrates are metabolised, perhaps leading to more energy being ‘harvested’ from the food we eat.
  • Evidence has emerged of potential in the use of probiotics to support the maintenance of normal blood sugar balance.

Probiotics are so-called ‘good’ bugs, and can be found in fermented foods, such as yoghurt, kombucha, kefir and sourdough. They’re also widely available as supplements.

The range of probiotics available is vast, and it can be confusing to decipher which ones might be best to take. There are thousands of strains of probiotics and different strains have been found to do different things, and research is ongoing.

So how can we choose a probiotic that’s right for us?

A bit of label reading can be helpful.

Check the product is fresh; probiotics only work if they’re alive. There are more shelf-stable probiotics that don’t need to be refrigerated these days, but fresh is best, so choose probiotics that have been well stored and check the expiry dates. Locally-produced products are likely to be fresher.

Quantity is important; for the best chance of more bacteria reaching the gut, where it can do good, large quantities are needed. Look for ten million bacteria per gram or more.

Choose products that specify the genus (eg lactobacillus), the species (eg reuteri) and the strain (eg 6475). These are more likely to have been the subject of specific research.

In terms of general health, research is ongoing to determine whether – and which – probiotics are of benefit to healthy people. It’s thought that after a course of antibiotics, a probiotic could also be useful to help re-populate the gut with healthy bacteria.

Always read the label and use as directed. Vitamins and minerals are supplementary to and not a replacement for a balanced diet. If symptoms persist, see your healthcare professional. Wondermins, Auckland. MR5767