From supplements to packaged foods and ways to make your own, we look at the different types of probiotics and consider some of the health benefits. By Angela Coffey.
What are probiotics? We’ve all heard of ‘good’ or ‘friendly’ bacteria – but what are they, and how can they benefit our health?
Probiotics are microorganisms that naturally form in cultured foods – think fermented foods like kombucha, sauerkraut and yogurt – and can also come in supplement form. These live bacteria and yeasts are thought to help restore the natural levels of bacteria in our gut and help support a healthy immune system. Some research indicates that gut microbiome imbalances are linked to numerous health issues, including cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
Probiotics can also be particularly beneficial if you are ill or on a course of antibiotics to help prevent diarrhoea. Some evidence also suggests probiotics may ease some symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It’s important to be aware that many different probiotics may have different effects on the body. For example, a particular type of probiotic may help with one problem, but it doesn’t mean it will help other issues.
Thinking about prebiotics alongside probiotics can also be beneficial. Prebiotics are plant fibres that act as the food source for the bacteria in our gut. Eating plenty of vegetables, fruits and legumes will support the gut – particularly potatoes, bananas and Jerusalem artichoke.
There are lots of ways you can incorporate probiotic-rich foods into your diet. Here are some of the most popular – including some you can make from home. Some varieties and brands are higher in carbs than others, so it pays to check the label. If you are having gut issues or you notice changes when introducing these foods into your diet, speak to your GP or dietitian.
Some types of cheese – cheddar, parmesan and swiss cheeses like gouda – are great sources of probiotics. Their low acidity and high fat preserve help to look after the good bacteria while it moves through the digestive system.
This is a cultured, fermented milk drink, similar to yogurt but thinner in consistency. It has a distinctive tart taste with a bit of ‘fizz’, thanks to the fermentation process. As well as being rich in probiotic bacteria, Kefir – like yogurt – is a good source of calcium.
This is generally made by fermenting vegetables, such as napa cabbage and Korean radish, made flavoursome with seasonings, including spring onions, garlic and ginger. It is a great side dish but can also be added to soups.
A sweetened fermented Chinese black or green tea, which contains a host of gut-beneficial bacteria and yeast species. There are plenty of flavours on the market, popular for its sweet taste and effervescence.
Miso paste is made from fermented soy used in many Japanese and Asian foods. It contains large amounts of the gut-friendly bacteria A. oryzae and is considered to support digestion.
A type of fermented cabbage, sauerkraut is full of good bacteria, is easy to make and home – fermenting cabbage with salt in water – and is a delicious addition to salads.
Good old-fashioned yogurt is one of the greatest sources of probiotics and comes readily available in a variety of flavours. It is made from milk, fermented by the friendly bacteria lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria. It doesn’t have to be dairy-based milk – any plant-based yogurt can be a probiotic and there are a number of coconut-based varieties on the market. Check products for the term’ live active cultures’ – bonus points if lactobacillus acidophilus is listed, which can help support digestion and promote healthy blood sugar.
Many studies have examined the role of probiotics in both the prevention and management of diabetes. There is some evidence that people with Type 2 diabetes and obesity have an altered gut microbiome, but it is not yet understood what the consequences are. Much of the research looking at altered gut microbiome and disease development is in animals with limited good-quality studies in humans. According to Diabetes UK, in animal studies, probiotic supplements have been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, reduce weight, and improve glycaemic control, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. But more research is needed to know if this is the same in humans.