When your digestive system’s a war zone, probiotics can help fight the bad bacteria in your gut
Did you know that as many as 60% of diseases begin in the gastrointestinal tract? Imbalances can lead to a number of unpleasant conditions such as diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, allergies, poor digestion and poor nutrient absorption. The bacteria in our digestive system manufacture substances that can either raise or lower our risk of disease, impact the effectiveness of medication, and influence our immune response, nutritional status or rate of ageing.
Clearly, we need to pay attention to intestinal bacteria. A total of 100 trillion bacteria live in our digestive system, in either a symbiotic or antagonistic relationship. That’s 10 times more intestinal bacteria than there are cells in the body! Some groups of bacteria can cause acute or chronic illness, but another group of bacteria offer protective and nutritive properties. These ‘friendly’ bacteria are called intestinal flora, or probiotics.
The two most important groups of intestinal flora are Lactobacilli—found mainly in the small intestine—and Bifidobacteria, found mainly in the colon. These bacteria are critical for normal development of the intestine and for defense against infections. In short, they are vital for our health. Some foods naturally contain probiotics, while others have probiotics added during preparation. Foods containing probiotics include: live yoghurt and live yoghurt drinks; miso and tempeh, which are made from fermented soya beans; and some juices and soya drinks. Probiotics are also available as a supplement. It’s never pleasant to have an upset tummy or be struck down with a bout of diarrhoea, especially when you’re pregnant. So listen to your body, drink plenty of fluids, rest—and take a probiotic to help correct the imbalance in the bacteria in your digestive system. Probiotics from both natural food sources and supplements are usually considered safe to take during pregnancy. But if you have an illness or condition that affects your immune system, speak to your doctor or midwife before changing your diet. There’s certainly lots of research into the health benefits of probiotics during pregnancy. Probiotics can help relieve constipation—a common problem faced by expectant moms. There’s also some evidence that taking probiotics can affect the good bacteria in your vagina, which is then transferred to your baby during vaginal delivery and can help baby’s immune system to develop. Other studies suggest that taking probiotics in pregnancy could reduce the likelihood of your baby developing eczema, but further tests are required. The absolute best time to take probiotics is along with your meal: right before or just after you’ve eaten. The journey through your digestive tract is a long and treacherous one; in the case of probiotics, their biggest threat is the powerful acids in the digestive system meant to break down and disintegrate materials that travel through. If enough acid overcomes the enteric coating of a probiotic capsule, it could kill the delicate strains and render your supplement completely useless, since the probiotic never reaches its appropriate destination—the intestine. By consuming your probiotic with food, you provide a buffering system for the supplement and ensure its safe passage through the digestive tract. Aside from protection, food also provides the friendly bacteria in your probiotic with the proper nourishment to ensure it survives, grows and multiplies in your gut. Be sure to choose a probiotic with strains that have a well-documented effect on restoring bacterial balance in the intestine, and thereby enhance gastrointestinal well-being.