When it comes to one's overall health, good gut health is crucial. As one of the largest organs in the human body, the gut (also called the gastrointestinal (GI) tract), has to perform several major tasks. Its main task is to digest food to provide you with energy and nutrients. By extension, it's also in charge of disposing of the 'leftovers' from the digested and non-digested foods.
Another critical role that the gut plays is; its role as a major part of your immune system. However, a lesser known fact about the gut is that it is home to trillions of microorganisms (also known as gut microbiota), all of which contribute to good gut health and also your overall wellbeing.
Q1: What are gut microbiota?
Gut microbiota are the microorganisms that make their home in your digestive ecosystem. This population consists of both 'good' and 'bad' bacteria. A healthy digestive gut would typically have a balance of about 85% good bacteria against 15% bad bacteria.
Q2: I've heard the term probiotics; what is it?
Probiotics are living microorganisms, mostly bacteria which provide health benefits to humans when consumed in adequate amounts. Also recognised as "good" bacteria, probiotics have been shown to be able to keep you gut healthy. In view of this, probiotics have been incorporated into several food products and are even available in the form of dietary supplements. Some of the common probiotics that are in the market are bacteria in the families of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Q3: Is there any law in this country that regulates the sale of probiotics?
Yes, the Ministry of Health Malaysia (MOH) has enacted a law that spells out specific requirements for products to be recognised as "probiotic cultures". These include the particular type and number of bacteria that are recognised. The law permits the addition of probiotic cultures to food and allows that food to be labelled as containing "probiotics" or "probiotic cultures". As a savvy consumer, you can correctly identify genuine probiotics products by reading the label.
Q4: Where can I find probiotic foods?
Some common probiotic foods include cultured and fermented milk products that have probiotic cultures, e.g. cultured milk drinks, fermented milk products, yoghurt, cultured cream, or sour cream.
Q5: What should I look for when choosing cultured milk drinks with probiotics?
There are five main points to be aware of:
- Check the label for the words "probiotic cultures"
- It should also specify that the cultures are alive or viable
- The genus, species and strain of probiotics used in the product (only certain strains have been approved by MOH)
- The quantity of probiotic cultures present in the food product must be clearly stated (it must contain a minimum of 106 cfu/ml or cfu/g; CFU is short for colony forming units, a measure of the number of microorganisms)
- Directions for storage before and after (if applicable) the package is opened
Q6: Are there other food sources of probiotics?
Traditional fermented foods are usually home-made and the types and number of bacteria are usually not well characterised and standardised. As such, they may not meet the criteria stipulated by MOH for probiotics. Nevertheless, they are potential sources of beneficial bacteria. Some examples of such fermented foods include tempeh, homemade yoghurt, kimchi and tapai.
Q7: What about probiotic supplements?
Probiotic supplements exist and are commonly found in either powdered or pill form. Do ensure that you follow the instructions on the products label when it comes to proper dosage and frequency of consumption in order to maximise the effectiveness of the probiotic. Remember to check the product's label to find out which probiotic genus and species (e.g. Lactobacillus casei) it contains and also its CFU count. If in doubt, consult the pharmacist or a healthcare professional before buying.
Q8: How do probiotics contribute to overall health or wellbeing?
Probiotics have been demonstrated to bring about several beneficial health effects. Current evidence supports the role of probiotics in tackling a broad range of digestive system problems. Certain probiotics have been found to be effective in improving symptoms of patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diarrhoea (which includes traveller's diarrhoea, antibiotic associated diarrhoea, and acute infectious diarrhoea), constipation and certain type of inflammatory bowel diseases. There is also emerging evidence that probiotics can positively influence immunity. In addition, there is on-going research on the potential role of probiotics in positively influencing a person's mental health or mood.
Q9: What are some of the factors that may affect the effectiveness of probiotics?
It has been established that the effectiveness of probiotics can be significantly influenced by many factors such as the probiotics species and strain, the formulation or mixture of probiotics, the dosage of probiotics taken, and the duration of consumption.
Holistic approach to good gut health
While probiotics is an important component of good gut health, one should not rely solely on it. There are other aspects of lifestyle which are also important for ensuring good gut health, such as consuming a balanced and varied diet high in dietary fibres. Some of the do's and don'ts include:
- Do practise balance, moderation and variety in your daily diet
- Do include foods rich in fibre
- Do drink plenty of water
- Do be more physically active
- Do get enough sleep
- Don't eat too much fried foods
- Don't take too much salt and sugar
This article is contributed by Probiotics Education Programme (PEP) by the Nutrition Society of Malaysia, sponsored by Malaysia Milk (VITAGEN). To obtain more information on the activities of the PEP, visit www.nutriweb.org.my/probiotics.