Probiotics: The pros and cons

We know we need to eat our greens, keep hydrated and get eight hours sleep, but did you ever think you needed to look after your gut, too? Believe it or not, gut health is directly linked to emotional, mental and physical health, and right now there’s a super drug offering our guts a plethora of goodness – probiotics.

For tiny capsules filled with live bacteria, probiotics are enjoying a Kardashian level of spotlight. According to new scientific findings, gut health is directly linked with human behaviour. As more research links healthy gut microbiome (the ecosystem of bacteria in our guts) with mood, weight, immunity and overall physical and mental health, probiotics have become the superheros of the health industry.

After all, we all want to be the best we can be, so it makes sense that we’re reaching for these bottles of bugs like they’re going out of fashion. So what’s wrong with that? Well, since our microbiome is totally unique, a probiotic that may boost your best friend’s health might be a waste of money for you. Here’s the breakdown on the friendly bugs we’re all a little crazy for.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics come in the form of capsules (or beverages, like Yakult) that are filled with good bacteria to support general gut health. The reason we are hearing so much about probiotics is because, thanks to new research, it seems good gut health is a major factor in overall human health and behaviour.

In fact, our microbiome constitutes most of what makes us who we are. So, does this mean we’re really just big bugs walking around? According to this Sydney Morning Herald article, it appears it does: “Bacteria are seen as so significant that scientists now believe that much of what makes us human is our microbiome. In fact we are, as scientists have come to say, more microbial than human.”

stomach gut bacteriaWhy your gut is really your ‘second brain’

It is now believed that our guts are responsible for making neurochemicals! That’s pretty cool, in fact our guts are known within the medical industry as our ‘second brain’ which can explain why we get those ‘gut feelings’ and why our intestines play such a huge part in our everyday wellbeing. If our guts are producing neurochemicals, then obviously they will have a direct influence on our mental health. Basically if our guts are healthy, our mood will be stable and our overall sense of health and wellbeing will be improved.

A fantastic article titled Think Twice: How the Gut’s “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Wellbeing, by Scientific American speaks to Emeran Mayer, Professor of Physiology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. Mayer believes that, in the near future, psychiatry will need to expand to be able to treat the ‘second brain’ in our guts, as well as the one atop the shoulders.

Food, mood and probiotics

Often, issues like mood disorders or anxiety can stem from a poor diet, which is due to the way our gut is processing junk food. We know that when we eat better, we feel better, and this is directly due to our guts thriving on a better diet – good food makes for good gut health, which in turn makes for a happy human!

According to this study, our microbiota changes due to the foods we eat and exposure to junk food can contribute to poor gut health. This is why it is super important to take care of your diet and to prioritise eating clean, which means lean protein, plenty of fresh vegetables, a serve or two of fruit, and when you feel like a treat – a healthier option. Avoid processed foods like confectionary, processed meat, packaged foods and soft drinks.

Why probiotics aren’t necessarily a good thing

As we know, there has been a huge rise in the popularity of probiotics, with the latest Grand View Research report stating that the probiotics market will be worth $52.34 billion! That’s a lot of money we’re spending on teeny tiny capsule-encased worms. But this rise in popularity isn’t exactly a good thing. You see, the aim of a probiotic is to boost gut health, but we are all so different, our microbiome is complex, unique to our individual bodies.

Therefore, one brand of probiotic can’t truly serve all of us to the standards often claimed on the bottle. In fact, according to Amy Wallis from the University of Victoria, achieving good gut health is all about balance. When speaking to SMH in this recent interview, she says: It’s a balance of bacteria and it’s all about achieving that balance… but, people have a balance that is healthy for them.”

In their paper on probiotics, Wallis’ co-author, Dr. Michelle Ball, adds to this: “We now know that a good balance of bacteria for one person may not be good for the next person, so taking a probiotic without knowing what your individual system looks like may actually do more harm than good.”  

This video from BBC Science looks further into the potential harm of probiotics.

How you can get probiotic benefits from your diet

Since there were no supplement shops around back in the caveman days, gut boosting nutrients were found in nature. Luckily, we can still find these benefits in the fresh food we eat today, so you can support your gut health by incorporating the following gut-loving foods into your diet

  • Wholegrains
  • Bananas
  • Yogurt
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • High fibre cereals
  • Kefir

Lee Holmes is the author of Heal Your Gut and she is a superhero herself when it comes to gut health. Check out her blog for some awesome ideas on boosting your own gut health, including recipes like warm quinoa salad with roasted beetroot and sweet potato, and other tasty ideas using gut-happy foods like broccoli, ginger and Brazil nuts. Holmes suggests avoiding the following foods to increase your gut happiness

  • Carbonated drinks
  • Refined and processed sugars
  • Additives, artificial colours, flavours and sweeteners,
  • Processed and packaged foods

Other ways to boost your gut health without probiotics

Below are just a few more ideas to help you improve your gut health without necessarily taking a probiotic. Try incorporating these tips over a one-month period and track your mood to see how much better you feel by the end of the month

  • Lower your stress levels – this is a huge priority; we all need to stress less!
  • Get more sleep
  • Increase water intake, preferably filtered water when possible
  • Exercise – a daily twenty minute fast paced walk is a great place to start and increase the time as your fitness improves
  • Visit a naturopath – if you would like to try a probiotic but not sure which is best for you, why not speak with a naturopath who can suggest the right brand and dose for your individual needs.

More on the gut…

If you’re interested in learning more about the gut and the power of your ‘second brain’ here are some fantastic resources to explore:

The Second Brain By Michael Gershon

Dr. Karl Podcast on Triple J (Dr Karl answers all types of kooky health questions, many of which are gut related)

Do You Have a Healthy Gut? A short and sweet article by SBS on the signs of good gut health

Multivitamin brand reviews

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