It’s estimated around 38 trillion bacteria cohabitate in and on our body and most of these make up the gut microbiota – a populated ecosystem that exists in our digestive system. Naturopaths have understood the importance of our microbiome for decades and now finally mainstream medicine has jumped on board to support what we have always known to be an integral part of our health and wellness. Due to more interest in the microbiome, many pharmaceutical and nutraceutical companies have met the market demand with loads of ‘products’ and when it comes to probiotics it’s important to understand what you’re buying and why.

As with all supplements it’s important to take evidence based products that have been clinically trialled, preferably on humans. For example the probiotic strain LGG has over 1000 scientific papers researching it’s use and this includes over 300 human studies. The study of probiotics is a complex area because just as siblings and cousins can technically belong to one family, their personalities and inner qualities can be extremely different and probiotics can be viewed the same way, as different strains exert different physiological actions.

Probiotics are usually sold either as single strain or multi-strain which means various strains are combined in the one capsule. It’s much easier to research single strains that target individual symptoms rather than multi-strain varieties, as there are specific strengths required of each probiotic to exert an effect and it’s also important to ensure that the strains within a multi-stain capsule don’t compete or interact adversely with each other. 

Some probiotic strains have specific manufacturing requirements and growth conditions to ensure the end product is effectively absorbed. Product stability is a real issue and very few companies have the correct technology to guarantee a non-refrigerated, shelf stable probiotic. As with most things, you get what you pay for and when it comes to probiotics, a well researched practitioner only prescribed supplement is likely to have been more thoroughly researched and formulated.

There are specific strains of probiotics that are formulated to target individual symptoms eg gastrointestinal, immune and inflammation. Probiotic strains such as LGG and BB-12 have a broader action such as supporting the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Lactobacillus Acidophilus NCFM offers more specific activity such as binding to opioid receptors in the gut and thereby modulating abdominal pain. S.Boulardii has been shown to reduce the incidence of traveller’s diarrhoea and its something I always prescribe for patients travelling to destinations such as India, Indonesia and other places where gastrointestinal infection for visitors is common. Specific strains of probiotics taken during pregnancy and infancy have been shown to reduce the incidence of behavioural complaints in childhood and LGG may reduce the incidence of atopic allergies such as eczema, asthma and hay fever in children when taken by the mother during pregnancy. 

Specific probiotic strains have been shown to be protective against certain viruses, bacteria, parasitic, worm infestation and fungal infections of the gut. If a current infection is present, antimicrobial work needs to be carried out prior to supplementing with probiotics for the best, long term outcome. Blastocystis hominis is one such infection that responds well to a comprehensive naturopathic approach involving antimicrobial and probiotic protocol. Due to antibiotic resistance issues, many chronic infections are no longer responding as effectively to usual antibiotic therapy. Probiotics can be taken at the same time as a course of antibiotics however it’s recommended to separate the antibiotic and probiotic dose by 2 hours. 

Prebiotics are different to probiotics and are considered more of a fuel to support the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut and can help motility which can improve bowel function and stool regularity. High fibre containing foods usually contain good amounts of prebiotics which travel undigested to the colon and are utilised by the gut flora living there.   

Fermented foods have had a lot of attention recently and they are an important part of a well balanced diet to provide natural food sourced probiotics to our digestive systems. Examples of fermented foods include yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, kombucha and tempeh. These foods are only required in regular, small amounts and are better tolerated when introduced slowly to the diet.

For further information or to make an appointment for a naturopathic consultation please contact Diana Arundell at Avoca Naturopath on 0410 465 900 or visit www.avocanaturopath.com.au.  Health fund rebates are available.