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Health experts globally have turned their attention more keenly to what’s happening in our gut due to an increased understanding that the state of the organisms that live there has a major impact on our overall health.

It’s known now that the good bacteria in our digestive tracts help protect from harmful bacteria and fungi. They also send signals to our immune systems and help regulate inflammation. 

Balancing act

Some of this bacteria also form vitamin K and short-chain fatty acids, which are the main nutrient source of the cells lining the colon. They promote a strong gut barrier that helps keep out harmful substances, viruses and bacteria. This may even reduce the risk of cancer.

Eating balanced amounts of probiotics, which are the live bacteria found in certain foods or supplements, and prebiotics, the non-digestible foods (mostly fibrous) that probiotics feed on, are both fantastic for your health.

“Prebiotic and probiotics may sound similar, but play different roles in our body,” explains Hayley Fonseca, Technical Consultant, Agriculture Food and Life at testing firm SGS Gulf.

“Probiotics are proven to be beneficial for the body and brain. They are known to promote good heart health, reduce depression, improve the digestive system and to some extent help with better skin.

“They can also be used as complementary and alternative medicine to treat illnesses such as tooth decay, irritable bowel syndrome, infectious diarrhoea and inflammatory bowel diseases. The best examples are yogurt, curd and fermented probiotic milk.

“Meanwhile, prebiotics are fibrous and give rise to good gut bacteria. They are usually found in fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. Prebiotics are known for being a beneficial aid for healthy digestion, improve constipation, improving immune function and metabolism, appetite control and to some extent weight loss.”

Diverse roles

While the FDA does not list a recommended amount of daily probiotic intake, studies have shown that about 1-10 billion CFU (Colony Forming Units) daily is recommended for healthy individuals. However, people should always talk to their doctor about their specific needs.

“Those who suffer from an imbalanced gut microbiome or those who suffer from gastrointestinal disorders may find relief after consuming probiotics,” says Dr Wafaa Ayesh, Director, Clinical Nutrition Department at DHA. 

“Probiotics also support a healthy gut-brain axis. On top of alerting your immune system to foreign invaders, digesting and absorbing nutrients, your gut also produces serotonin. In fact, about 90 per cent of the serotonin in your body is produced by the cells in your gut.

“The gut plays an integral role in protecting you against pathogens and viruses. In fact athletes pay special attention to their probiotic intake as it may increase antioxidant, protein, and fat absorption. Probiotics may also promote higher levels of interferon, which is a natural virus fighter that is sometimes decreased in fatigued athletes.”

So, as research continues in this area, experts now agree that listening to your gut, literally, is a sure way to improve overall well-being.

Seven to try

Yogurt is the most commonly consumed form of probiotic food and is associated with bodily benefits such as good bone health and improved digestion. Add yogurt to your diet by mixing into a fruit salad, have it as a drink — for example lassi — or simply have a small plain bowl as an accompaniment to any meal.

A fermented probiotic milk, kefir is prepared by adding kefir grains to cow’s or goat’s milk. The drink provides benefits such as protection against infections and promotes bone health. Both yogurt and kefir can be consumed by lactose-intolerant people.

Onions, raw and cooked, are a good source of prebiotics. It also contains inulin that feeds and promotes the growth of probiotics. 

Chicory root 
Chicory is popular with foodies for its coffee like flavour, but it’s also an amazing source of prebiotics. In fact, about 47 per cent of chicory root fibre comes from the prebiotic fibre inulin, which nourishes gut bacteria, improves digestion and helps relieve constipation. Additionally, chicory root is high in antioxidant compounds that protect the liver from oxidative damage.

Miso is a salty paste made from fermented beans (usually soybeans) that have been a staple in the Japanese diet for thousands of years. Because it’s fermented, it is filled with probiotics and is very healthy. It is also versatile and great as a soup base.

A tasty German classic, sauerkraut is a shredded and fermented cabbage side dish that is packed with probiotics and is stocked in most supermarkets in jars. Go for an organic brand and serve with meals as often as you like for a health boost.

When it comes to prebiotics, oats are a real winner. Easily available and consumed, they have a good amount of fibre as well as resistant starch. Oats can also control appetite and are linked with lowering blood cholesterol, better blood sugar levels, and a healthy gut.