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What are probiotics and prebiotics all about?

September 2013

ProbioticsThat gut feeling

Digestive problems do tend to increase with age and today there is a lot more information and news coming out about what we should and shouldn’t be eating and doing.

New words such as probiotics and prebiotics which weren’t around when we were young are now used in normal conversations and supermarkets are full of specialist foods containing probiotics and prebiotics that are marketed as being helpful to our health.

It can all get horribly complicated. If we watch tv at all, most of us will have been exposed to advertisements about “friendly bacteria”.  Yet, while bacteria has a very poor reputation, in fact some of the bacteria in our guts are essential, doing a great job helping us to digest our food and reduce levels of harmful germs.

The balance between good and bad bacteria is important, and if the balance starts to shift towards more unhealthy bacteria, then it can be useful to start considering the levels of probiotics and prebiotics in your gut.

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.

Probiotics are a naturally occurring flora that occurs in our gut.  They contain bacteria which helps everything to function effectively - that is why they can sometimes be called the “friendly bacteria”. Alcohol, disease or stress can adversely affect naturally occurring gut flora.

The major source of probiotics for humans is dairy based foods, especiall foods containing Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium.  Yoghurt is the most familiar source of probiotic food here in the UK.

Probiotics however need prebiotics - they feed on them!  Prebiotics don’t have bacteria. Instead, they contain non-digestible carbohydrates from food that isn’t digested in the first part of our systems.  They make it intact to our large bowel, where they help the health bacteria to thrive.

Prebiotics are found in various vegetables and fruit such as tomatoes, asparagus, whole grains, artichokes and bananas.

It doesn’t end there. Recently researchers are focusing on the distinction between short chain, long chain and full spectrum prebiotics.

The specialist gut and digestive foods and supplements that have been coming on the market really are based on probiotics. While the general consensus is that if you are well, then you don’t really need any specific foods and supplements, nevertheless in some cases boosting the levels of probiotic or friendly bacteria in the gut can be helpful.

ActimelThere are many products on the market now such as Actimel.

Actimel is one of the recognized brands in this area and for many years has been producing probiotic rich yogurt drinks to help the digestive system.  The name actually originated from the Flemish language and means “active milk”.

Their products contain two traditional yogurt cultures, lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus,  but they have also added a third culture to their product - L.Casei (Danone).  This is a specific strain that has been identified at Danone’s International Research Centre as particularly helpful and now their Actimel drink contains 10 billion L.Casei cultures.

Prebiotics are also available in supplements, usually a powder or tablets. The good thing about prebiotics is that they are highly stable and are unaffected by temperature or long term storage. This means they can be added to almost every type of food and Bimunodrink, reaching the colon intact to feed the friendly bacteria.

One of the most recognised bands of prebiotic supplement available to the general public is Bimuno. This is the result of 10 years research at the University of Reading and Bimuno Immunaid  contains unique transgalactooligosaccharides which are said to significantly and selectively increase the good bacteria in a gut within just seven days.

Interestingly, 60% of our immune system is based in the gut, so by targeting the gut Bimuno also helps to boost our bodies’ defences.

Bimuno has been shown to exhibit the most bifidogenic (‘good bacteria’ boosting) effect in the gut of any known prebiotic.

There are other products on the market as well, but often it is best to talk to your GP or health provider about any problems you have with your digestion before radically changing your diet or taking specific supplements.


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