The what, the how and the why
Probiotics is a term you must be very familiar with, unless you have been hibernating in a cave for the past 20 years. We have all seen the adverts on our TV screens with images of bowels and happy faces after consuming yogurt or tiny probiotic drinks, so you know it’s a good thing and its for the gut, but do you know the what, how and why? Well, here is the low-down, without all the scientific jargon that we all find very confusing.
Taking it back to basics; pro meaning for, and bio meaning life in Latin and Greek. Bacteria is after all, how all life started. But you would be excused to shudder at the thought of willingly swallowing millions of living bacteria, especially when you’ve come face to face with it growing on that forgotten cucumber at the back of your fridge! You opt for the hand wash that kills 99.9% of bacteria, and then you pick up bacteria from the next isle in the supermarket to drink it? Weird right? Not so if you think of bacteria like you would the people you come into contact with on a daily basis, there are the bad ones that you would do anything to avoid, but there are the good ones that you go out of your way to spend time with. Bacteria is just that, there are the good ones and the bad ones. The bad ones can make you very ill and you need antibiotics to kill, and there are the super good ones which not only help make you very healthy, they can also help cure diseases!
Probiotics, prebiotics, postbiotics, now this is when it gets a little bit more confusing, but here is the low-down; probiotics described by the World Health organization as “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host” (O, 2011), are the actual living bacteria in your intestines or in capsules that you can get from your pharmacy or health food shop, or in foods or drinks you find in your supermarket. The two most common and most important types are called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium (Kechagia M, 2013). Prebiotics however are the food the probiotics need to thrive, and postbiotics are the result of the bacteria (probiotics), eating the food (the prebiotics). So, to simplify:
Prebiotics + Probiotics = Postbiotics
Our digestive system is huge, 5 to 7 meters long! So, any good bacteria that you ingest for it to benefit your intestines, have to be the superman of bacteria to survive the long, perilous journey from your mouth to your intestines where they will live and work. Starting with the saliva in your mouth, down to the acid and bile in your stomach, which is strong enough to break down bone and even metal, it’s not very easy for much to survive! The bacteria that do survive, must have the ability to withstand acid and bile, to cling onto surfaces full of mucus, to fight off bad bacteria trying to kill them, as well as survive a high salt environment (Kechagia M, 2013). This highlights the importance of obtaining your probiotics from reputable sources to ensure that you do benefit.
Probiotics have more than just the natural challenges created by our digestive system to overcome, as there are various external factors that we come into contact with on a daily basis which may alter the environment in our gut. If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with access to clean drinking water straight from the tap, then you are ingesting trace quantities of various elements used in the water cleaning process such as Chlorine.
The science community, and equally governments worldwide, are divided in opinion on the health benefits or adverse effects of Chlorine and Fluoride in our drinking water on health in general and our gut microbiome (the bacteria in our gut and its environment) in particular. Chlorine is used around the world in trace quantities to ensure that any harmful bacteria is eliminated from our water sources. The scientific research into the possible harmful effects of Chlorine on our health in general, and our gut microbiome is ongoing. A recent study advise people to boil the water for infants under the age of 12 months (Martino, 20 January 2019). In adults however, the results are still unclear, but as Chlorine is used to eliminate harmful bacteria, it has been suggested that this would cause Microbial dysbiosis (imbalance in the microbial community) (Martino, 20 January 2019). This basically makes the environment for our bacteria a not very friendly one, which may cause chronic illness long-term. This however has been disputed, as it is unclear if the trace levels in our drinking water even make it past our stomach, and into the intestines, as our stomach is naturally highly chlorinated and contains hydrochloric acid, sodium and potassium chloride (Martino, 20 January 2019).
Fluoride is another chemical added to drinking water, but this will depend on where you live, as not all governments, local authorities or scientists agree on whether it’s good for us or not. It was first added in drinking water in 1945 in a community called Rapid Water, in Michigan, and it was found to reduce tooth decay in children, which caused this practice to spread across the world (Awofeso, 2014). However, you don’t have to be a scientist to understand why it is impossible to reach a categorical conclusion on the effects of fluoride when looking at large communities. Not enough research has been carried out to determine the long-term health effects of fluoride on our digestive system, so it is perhaps worth checking if your own local water provider adds fluoride to your tap water, and how much. It is also worth noting that even if they don’t, trace amounts may still be found in your water depending on the type of rock in the source area of the .
What we know emphatically, is that our gut microbiota is essential to our health, and having an unhealthy gut microbiome has been linked to type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, and colorectal cancer (Conlon, 2014), so maintaining the health of our gut microbiome is essential for our general health. A healthy and varied diet is the most important step in ensuring a healthy gut microbiome (Hills, 2019).
Scientists also agree that due to the varying diets, water intake and other lifestyle factors which all contribute to the quality and diversity of our microbiota, it is proving vital to provide individuals with a highly personalised diet and health plan as well as personalised supplements based on individual results provided (Bashiardes S, 2017), as well as the development of next-generation probiotics tailored to the individual (Hills, 2019) (Zhang N, 2018).
- Awofeso, S. P. (2014). Water Fluoridation: A Critical Review of the Physiological Effects of Ingested Fluoride as a Public Health Intervention. Scientific World Journal.
- Bashiardes S, G. A. (2017). Towards utilization of the human genome and microbiome for personalized nutrition. PMID: 29223004.
- Conlon, M. A. (2014). The impact of diet and lifestyle on gut microbiota and human health. PMC, Nutrients, 7(1), 17–44.
- Hills, R. D. (2019). Gut Microbiome: Profound Implications for Diet and Disease. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11071613. Kechagia M, B. D. (2013). EM. Health benefits of probiotics: a review. NCBI, ISRN nutrition, 2013, 481651.
- Martino, D. (20 January 2019). The Effects of Chlorinated Drinking Water on the Assembly of the intestinal Microbiome. MDPI. O, M. M. (2011). Probiotics in Critically Ill Patients. Anesth Pain. 2011;1(2): 58-60. DOI: 10.5812/kowsar.22287523.2291. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/.
- Zhang N, J. Z. (2018). Time for food: The impact of diet on gut microbiota and human health. PMID: 29621737.