Herbfacts

Q & A: The benefits of friendly bacteria and probiotics

“What are friendly bacteria and what are their benefits?”

Clinical nutritionist Suzie Sawyer provides the answers.

Friendly bacteria is a term frequently used, particularly on yoghurt pots in the supermarkets.  It can  be slightly confusing, bearing in mind that bacteria are usually associated with disease and illness, but there are bacteria which are very friendly and really important to our health.

WHAT ARE THEY?

‘Friendly bacteria’ is another expression for the correct name ‘probiotics’.  Currently European law has prevented the word ‘probiotic’ being used when referring to any product containing them, however, it doesn’t mean they are any less beneficial to our health. Friendly bacteria are live microorganisms that reside in the digestive tract, and when present in adequate amounts, are beneficial to our health.  To be termed a probiotic, an organism must be ‘live’, beneficial to health and safe.

HOW MANY ARE THERE?

There are around 400 different microbial species in their billions that live in the digestive tract and more are being found all the time. Interestingly, we do know that at any one time, the friendly bacteria happily living in our bodies can weigh as much as six pounds in total!

WHICH TYPES ARE BEST FOR HEALTH?

The community of friendly bacteria establish themselves in the gut within the first few weeks of life.  The most common species, Lactobacilli and Bifidobacterium, are most prevalent in our gut flora. So when looking for a probiotic supplement, it’s always best to search out ones that contain these ‘resident’ strains (those naturally residing in your body), as these tend to be the most beneficial to health.

WHAT DO THEY DO?

Friendly bacteria provide a wealth of benefits to our health including:

  • Helping the body to detoxify
  • Aiding digestion, enhancing absorption of nutrients and supporting the immune system
  • Helping to combat digestive issues such as bloating, flatulence, constipation and diarrhoea – these symptoms are often caused by imbalanced friendly bacteria
  • Helping to produce certain vitamins, specifically the B vitamins and vitamin K
  • Producing the enzyme lactase, which digests lactose found in dairy foods
  • Promoting urinary and genital health

WHAT ABOUT SUPPLEMENTATION?

The ‘resident’ strains are not always found in yoghurts, and if they are they don’t always survive the stomach acid when they’re eaten.  Therefore, it’s best to take a supplement containing some friendly bacteria at least once a year, because they are so valuable to overall health; look for supplements with ‘enteric coating’ designed to withstand stomach acid.

Additionally, if you’ve been on a course of antibiotics, (designed to destroy all bacteria, including the friendly ones), you should ideally take a supplement afterwards. Restoring the natural balance of these good bacteria, which are so important for our health, will reduce the likelihood of the bad bacteria flourishing, specifically causing digestive issues.