There’s no doubt that probiotics fight a war in our gut, stopping bad bacteria overcoming good. But how do we ensure we get enough to stay healthy, and when do we need extra?
Antibiotics vs. probiotics
As parents, we are concerned about what our children put in their mouth while exploring the world through the playground, the school and the diet. Often, this can include microbes: tiny organisms, such as bacteria, that are present everywhere and can be labelled as ?good’ or ?bad’. Sooner or later your child’s going to pick up a bug that requires antibiotics. While antibiotics are effective for destroying bacterial infections, broad-spectrum antibiotics can kill the good bacteria too. One way to top up your child’s good bacteria may be through probiotics.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are commonly referred to as healthy, friendly or good bacteria that stick to the walls of our gut. This is in stark contrast to the bad bacteria that also live in our gut but can create stomach bugs. As an analogy it is possible to view probiotics as the reinforcing army sent to bulk up the numbers of good bacteria in the bacterial war of the gut. These good little soldiers may provide beneficial health effects to your children as they grow, but be aware that not all the heath claims made are fully proven.
Probiotics in the diet
People have been consuming probiotics as part of their diets for hundreds of years from fermented foods such as yoghurts, cheese, sour cream, sauerkraut (from fermented cabbage) and soy products such as miso soup. These good bacteria can also be found in breast milk and are added into some infant formula. Most baby formulas include nutrients that maintain and promote the growth of the good bacteria already within the baby’s gut; because of this, some formula companies argue that probiotics are unnecessary in these products.
Probiotics in supplements
Another source of probiotics is through supplements, and the daily consumption of these products is a recent trend. They provide a higher dose than what is found in a normal diet and are usually taken for a medical reason or to convey specific health benefits such as the ones mentioned below. Most of the benefits attributed to probiotics have been studied using supplements with known amounts of specific bacteria; this is not possible to do with food as the amount of probiotics can vary. Additionally, in contrast to probiotic foods, supplements are packaged in a way that ensures the bacteria will survive the trip into the gut.
The good guys
Probiotics’ strategy to keep in line the enemies seems to involve competition for food that both good and bad bacteria use to survive; they also stop bad bacteria from sticking to your gut and instead force them out of your system. It is also believed that the good bacteria are able to inactivate toxins released by bad bacteria which can make your child sick. Additionally, they are able to stimulate the gut’s own defences which bombard and eliminate the bad bacteria.
The health benefits that these effects convey include:
An improved immune system
Probiotics can help teach the immune system how to defend itself, this is particularly important at a young age when the immune system is still learning how to properly defend the body.
Reduced side effects of antibiotics
Kids get sick often, and sometimes antibiotics are needed, but an unwelcome side effect is typically diarrhoea. Probiotics can help reduce the occurrence of diarrhoea by restoring the good bacteria destroyed by the antibiotics.
Improved lactose tolerance
Lactose is a type of sugar found in milk and while babies can often tolerate it, intolerance can form at varying stages of childhood. This can lead to an upset stomach every time milk or other lactose containing foods are eaten. Intolerance is due to the inability to break apart the milk sugar, and probiotics can assist with digestion.
There are still questions about the effectiveness of probiotics
For example, is there enough probiotics in food to cause an effect? And do they survive the trip to the gut? For probiotic supplements the questions are a bit different: what dosage and what mix of bacterial species are effective and safe? Answers may be found in time; at this stage you should choose your supplements wisely by speaking to a GP or nutritionist before you make the investment. As well as this, you may decide that additional research will be important in determining the best supplements for your needs. For example, you may be able to find out which manufacturers are behind the best private labeling supplements that have made themselves known to you during your search and whether this will be the right course of action to take. But don’t do anything until you have spoken to a medical practitioner first. It is the general consensus that food sources of probiotics are safe after hundreds of years of human consumption and therefore a good choice for general health.
Did you know?
Probiotics are foods or supplements (capsules, powder or sachets) that contain good bacteria, the most used strains of bacteria are Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria. Probiotics can live in the gut and provide health benefits to the body.
Prebiotics are non-digestible sugars that act like food for probiotics and help them to grow in number. They can be found in foods such as bananas, whole grains, onion, garlic and honey. Prebiotics are also available in supplements and, in combination with probiotics, they are marketed as symbiotics.
Some good tips:
Buy probiotic foods that will last the longest, by checking the expiry date, and to refrigerate them, as well as supplements, to help preserve their potency, as the bacteria degrade over time.
Make yoghurt dressings, dips and smoothies to get yoghurt into your diet. You can also make your own yoghurt or Keffir so that the probiotics are really fresh; add miso to winter soups or send it to school in a flask with a fresh roll; add some sauerkraut to your own cabbage (cooked with tomatoes and a little bit of bacon it tastes really quite delicious).
If you want to treat the family to a delicious dessert on a hot summer’s day, and serve up a healthy dose of probiotics and antioxidants at the same time, try this slightly unusual yet delicious smoothie.
- 100g dark chocolate
- 30g dark chocolate, grated
- 240g blueberries (fresh, tinned or frozen)
- 650g blueberry-flavoured (or plain) probiotic yoghurt
- 100ml milk, refrigerated
- 500ml vanilla ice-cream
1. Break the chocolate into pieces and melt in a bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water.
2. Using an electric blender or a food processor, blend the yoghurt, milk and vanilla ice-cream together.
3. Mix in the melted chocolate and blend well. Carefully mix in the blueberries and grated chocolate. Pour into four tall glasses and enjoy!
By Christelle Le Ru, cookbook author & mum of five.
Project Nutrition is an organisation that aims to promote health and wellbeing through good nutritional advice that is accessible and affordable for everyone. www.projectnutrition.co.nz.