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Discovering the pros of probiotics 

Dietitian CLARE WOLSKI offers a friendly word about… bowel movements!

WHILE it might not be polite conversation, gut symptoms and bowel movements are part of my daily vernacular. 

Clare Wolski
Clare Wolski.

Many of the clients I work with experience gastrointestinal symptoms which can vary from multiple loose bowel movements in a day, having uncomfortable gas, bloating in the abdomen or constipation and difficulty passing a movement. 

When investigating the causes of these symptoms, the balance and variety of our gut bacteria is a key piece of the puzzle and probiotics are one tool to potentially improve gut symptoms. 

Probiotics are live bacteria that we can consume through supplements and food. They help to improve the number of good bacteria in our gut, which then helps to improve our health and wellbeing. 

It’s important to distinguish probiotics from prebiotics. Prebiotics are the parts of our food that feed the bacteria in the gut. Prebiotics include the fibre in fruit, vegetables and wholegrains, as well as the bi-products of fermented foods such as sourdough bread, kimchi and sauerkraut. 

While there is bacteria in these fermented foods, they may not survive the acidity of the stomach. The benefit of fermented foods is that the bacteria has already broken down some components in the food, which will help to feed the bacteria in the gut. 

Research has shown that certain strains of bacteria can reduce the incidence of constipation, while others can improve symptoms of gastrointestinal bloating, urgency, and loose bowel movements. 

I have worked with several clients experiencing these sorts of gastrointestinal symptoms and found that trialling certain probiotic strains has helped to alleviate or reduce the severity of their symptoms. 

While this isn’t the case in every circumstance and many clients have other structural and functional causes for their gut symptoms, trialling a probiotic can be an easy way to improve symptoms and rule out an imbalance of bacteria as the cause of the issues. 

There is growing evidence that gut bacteria has a huge impact on a wide range of health outcomes. Some of the other documented impacts of probiotics include: 

  • Support of the innate and adaptive immune systems, which may help to reduce risk of respiratory tract infections. 
  • Improved regulation of stress hormones, including cortisol through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. 
  • Moderation of inflammatory cytokines, which can reduce depression and anxiety related symptoms. 

As a result of these benefits, more people are wanting to make sure that they have the right balance of bacteria in their gut to support these aspects of health. 

However, the scientific understanding of all the various strains of bacteria in the gut and how they interact with one another is still in its infancy. 

While scientists and health professionals are starting to understand that our microbiome has an impact on many facets of health, it’s difficult to prescribe specific strains of bacteria for particular conditions. 

As a result, there may be strains of bacteria that have little to no impact on your health beyond a placebo effect or they are not consumed in a high enough dose to cause a clinical change. 

If you are experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms or wanting to use probiotics to support your health, speak to a qualified health professional about more specific strains of probiotics to improve symptoms and whether this is a good option for you. 

Clare Wolski is a practising senior dietitian at The Healthy Eating Clinic.

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