Digestive health: probiotics and prebiotics

probiotics and prebiotics digestive health retreat

When our digestive system is healthy, then our body stands a really good chance of being healthy and balanced, and we will experience health and wellbeing. There is increasing information being published about the microbiome, as well as probiotics and pre-biotics, and the role they play in our digestive system and overall health and wellbeing. In this article, we will look at what probiotics and prebiotics are, how you can enjoy them in the food that you eat and what to consider when taking supplements (probiotics). We will start with a quick re-cap of the digestive system and how the gut gets unbalanced.

The digestive system

The digestive system starts at the mouth and ends at the anus. You can think of it like a long tube, through which lots of different processes take place to break down, digest, process, distribute and get rid of the food and drink that we consume.

The digestive system has many responsibilities including:

  • Breaking down the food that we eat
  • Absorbing nutrients from the food that we eat
  • Protecting you from harmful substances
  • Getting rid of waste products and toxins

Problems can occur at many points in the process, and many people experience tummy pain, bloating and poor health as a result. More information about the digestive system is on our blog: digestive health part 2 – the digestive system and digestive health part 1 – plant-based food for tummy trouble relief.

How does the gut become unbalanced?

Many factors can upset the balance in our gut, for example:

  • High sugar diets
  • Diets high in refined and processed foods
  • Chronic constipation
  • Stress, high levels over a long period of time
  • Medications, e.g. antibiotics
  • Gut infections, e.g. food poisoning
  • Illness

This means that the non-beneficial bacteria can start to flourish and crowd out the friendly guys.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are healthy living organisms, also called live bacteria, that exist naturally in our bodies. They are essential for our good health. 

These friendly (or beneficial) bacteria have many jobs that keep your body running in good health. This includes helping with digestion, absorbing nutrients, producing certain vitamins and other substances, helping to regulate hormone production and getting rid of waste products (elimination). Most of the bacteria in our body lives in our gut. All the bacteria together are often referred to as the gut flora or microbiome.

Improving your gut health can give your whole system a chance to re-balance. Read more in our article about the importance of the gut microbiome for health and wellbeing here.

You can find probiotics in food or in supplement form.

Fermented products tend to contain good levels of friendly bacteria, in particular BIfidobacterium or Lactobacillus species and some of these exhibit powerful anti-inflammatory activities.

Good food sources include:

  • Yoghurt with added cultures (also available as dairy-free)
  • Fermented foods such as:
    • Kimchi (a Korean type dish, cabbage pickled with a combination of garlic, ginger and chilis)
    • Sauerkraut (Central European origins, fresh cabbage, fermented in salt and other spices)
    • Kefir (dairy – milk based)
    • Pickles
    • Miso (origins in Japan, it’s a fermented paste made from soy beans)
    • Tempeh (origins in Indonesia, made from fermented soy beans)
    • Sourdough bread (bread made by the fermentation of dough, base is a yeast starter)
    • Kombucha (black or green tea fermented with yeasts and bacteria)

Some of these flavours might take some getting used to, so then you might choose to take a probiotic supplement.

What to look for in a probiotic supplement?

If you want to take a good probiotic supplement, the things to look for are:

  • It should contain live and active bacterial cultures – it should say this on the package
  • Look at the type of bacteria in the supplement: generally useful probiotics include genus Lactobacillus,Bifidobacterium or Saccharomyces boulardii.
  • The quantity of bacteria – best products are likely to have 1 billion colony forming units.
  • Consider why you are taking the supplement, e.g. do you have a particular health condition (like IBS) or have you just finished a course of anti-biotics? Some products are developed specifically for this and will say so on their packaging.

Remember, if a product contains live cultures, it will have a short-ish shelf life (perhaps 12 months, no longer).

Who should take probiotics?

Probiotics can be taken by most people. There are some groups of the population that scientific research is now suggesting they could be beneficial. So, it might we worth taking a course of probiotics if you experience:

  • Regular bloating
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (including symptoms of abdominal pain)
  • Diarrhoea, e.g. due to travel
  • Bad breath
  • Itching
  • Candida overgrowth
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Depression
  • Thyroid imbalance

It is also a good idea to take probiotics after taking a course of anti-biotics, to bring your microbiome back into balance.

How do probiotics influence weight loss?

Scientists have been conducting research into the role of probiotics with weight loss and weight management and have found that gut micro flora may affect insulin sensitivity and obesity related disorders. A recent meta-analysis (this is a large scientific study that pulls together all the articles published in the area to look for statistical associations) found evidence that taking probiotics enhances weight loss and reduces body fat percentage. There are an increasing number of scientific studies demonstrating that eating a diet high in prebiotics and taking probiotic supplements can help to reach and maintain a healthy weight.  

Contraindications – when NOT to take probiotics

Whilst probiotics / live bacteria are fine for most people, caution should be exercised for people who are severely immune-compromised, such as those with AIDS, advanced cancer, and those having chemotherapy. Please check with your oncologist first. There are usually no contraindications for women during pregnancy.  

If you are currently on a course of antibiotics, it is best to finish the course first, then take the probiotic supplements. This allows the antibiotics to do the job they need to. Then the probiotics can support your gut bacteria in getting back to balance.

When you first start taking probiotics

When starting probiotics as a supplement protocol, there can be, for a few days, some gas and bloating as the beneficial bacteria begin to go to work eradicating the pathogenic, disease-causing strains, but this passes after a few days. 

On vary rare occasions, other reactions might occur, which are usually a symptom of an underlying problem. If you experience any of the following symptoms, please stop taking the probiotics (live bacteria) and seek help from your medical professional.

  • Sudden onset bloating
  • Sudden onset abdominal pain
  • Rapid unexplained weight loss
  • Unexplained chronic tiredness
  • Blood in your stools
  • A palpable lump in your abdomen
  • A marked change in the consistency of your stools

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics help to stimulate the growth of the friendly bacteria – essentially, they are the non-digestible food ingredients and the “good” bacteria feed off this. They are found in most fruit and vegetables, as well as legumes and beans, so what we eat can really influence the growth of the friendly guys. Fibre is very important to the beneficial bacteria.

The plant-based food served at La Crisalida Retreats is a great source of prebiotics. We suggest that you add the following pre-biotic rich items into your diet on a regular basis:

  • Garlic
  • Onion
  • Leeks
  • Bananas
  • Oats
  • Chicory
  • Flaxseed
  • Asparagus
  • Beans and other legumes
  • Apple (remember the old saying…”an apple a day keeps the doctor away”!)

High fibre foods are great for your digestive health overall and also help the good bacteria to flourish.

If you are not used to eating high levels of fibre, we suggest that you introduce it into your diet slowly and build up over time. Sometimes, adding high fibre foods into your diet can lead to excess gas or bloating. As the body becomes used to the higher amount of fibre, you will find that the gas and bloating subside and disappear.

Create a healthy lifestyle

To create health and wellbeing, it is important to have a healthy lifestyle. This includes eating a diet high in nutrients (lots of natural vegetables, wholegrains and fruits, a good plant-based diet can help), as well as low stress, taking regular exercise, getting good and sufficient sleep and having a healthy mindset.

Taking probiotic (or other nutrient) supplements for a short period of time can help to bring your body back into balance.

Find out more – come on retreat!

Read more about the plant-based food served at La Crisalida Retreats here and you can also learn more about the holistic La Crisalida health and wellbeing programme here.

We hope you enjoyed this article. Do let us know your comments!

About the author

Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).