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What are probiotics?
The consumption of probiotics has a number of health benefits. They help to digest food, destroy disease-causing cells and even produce vitamins. In addition, probiotics can also reduce inflammation within our body and promote antibody productions (1). Boosting of antibody level enhances immunity and reduction of inflammation may help to improve various health issues such as eczema and improve the overall wellness of the body.
The most common bacteria found in probiotics belong to groups called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
What about prebiotics?
Prebiotics are essentially plant fibers that cannot be fully digested and absorbed by our body. They are, however, food for our gut micro-organisms. Hence, the intake of prebiotics will encourage growth of probiotics within our gut, which may help the host to achieve a balanced gut microbiome state.
Examples of food rich in prebiotics are whole grains, barley, banana, onions, garlic, soybeans and green leafy vegetables. You can also take supplements which contain prebiotics.
What does synbiotic mean?
The term synbiotic refers to products combining probiotics and prebiotics.
It is essentially a mixture of live micro-organisms and the food they require to thrive.
This synergistic effect helps live good bacteria colonise the intestine and provides sustaining effect on our health.
How to choose our probiotics supplements?
Commonly, people look at the CFU or colony forming units. This refers to the number of micro-organisms in one serving.
The average CFU count per serving is between 1 and 10 billion. While it’s important to have enough of these little guys in the product, it is important to understand that higher CFU doesn’t necessarily mean a better product.
Live or Dead Bacteria
We have to also consider whether the probiotics are alive. Dead or inactive probiotics may provide similar benefits of live probiotics.
However, since they are dead, they are not able to self-replicate like live probiotics and cannot colonise our gut to bring about long lasting effects. On the other hand, live bacteria are able to self-replenish and establish a healthy microbial ecosystem.
Moreover, to reach our gut, probiotics have to survive the challenging condition of our digestive system. A majority of good bacteria would be killed by the acidic environment of our stomach and cannot make it to the intestines.
There is now special micro-encapsulation technology for probiotics to protect them from the digestive juices of our gut, allowing them to reach the large intestine intact.
Types of Strains
Last but not least, the strain or strains of bacteria. Through multiple studies, we now understand that there are differences between the microbiome makeup amongst humans living in different parts of the world (2).
Someone living in Singapore will have a different gut microbiome compared to someone living in America, due to culture, behaviour, dietary factors and age. This implies that the good bacteria required by population groups with different backgrounds also differs.
So, a product with clinical studies supporting its unique positioning for your population background will most likely provide you with the most beneficial probiotics.
More about Precision Formulation
Precision formulation is an emerging trend in the world of probiotics. Research centres worldwide are keen to develop formulations for consumers with different cultural backgrounds or patients from specific disease groups.
For example, there are now probiotics products tailored for medical conditions like obesity, diabetes, colorectal cancer.
One such centre would be the Centre for Gut Microbiota Research of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. They employ microbiome Metagenomic sequencing to identify the beneficial bacteria that are lacking in the general Asian population and specific Asian patient group. With data of over 1000 Asians and the machine learning technology, the research centre aims to develop probiotics suitable for the Asian gut.
By : Dr Chen Yiming
Family Physician, MBBS (Singapore), GDFM (NUS), GDFP Dermatology (NUS)