Probiotics, fermented foods and your gut

Defined by the World Health Organisation as “Live microorganisms that when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”. Probiotic bacteria can be added to food products like yoghurt or taken as food supplements, and are often described as "good" or "friendly" bacteria. Probiotics are meant to help correct dysbiosis- a condition where the natural balance of bacteria in your gut is disrupted by an illness or antibiotic or other treatments.

Probiotic bacteria break down fibre and resistant starches in our large bowel, which creates some incredibly useful by-products- short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). They act as energy fuel for the bowel lining and therefore keep it healthy. They also have a positive impact on inflammatory processes and are protective against cancer cell formation. SCFAs have a huge role in maintaining the integrity of the intestinal barrier which ensures that the nutrients, water and ions are allowed through to the blood, but any pathogens and bacterial toxins are kept within the bowel for excretion with the faeces. Other products of fermentation include gases (hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and sometimes methane), which can make you feel bloated and cause flatulence- a completely natural part of healthy digestion!

In addition to the benefits to the bowel health, gut microorganisms play a pivotal role in the regulation of metabolic, endocrine and immune functions, although the mechanisms via which this is achieved are not yet fully understood.

Probiotics are described first by genus, then species and then by strain (i.e. Bifidobacterium infantis 35624). There are significant differences in their functions even at the strain level; therefore, for example, only because this specific strain (Bifidobacterium infantis 35624) was shown to benefit people with IBS (human trials), it does not mean that all other Bifidobacterium strains will have the same effect! For this reason it is difficult to interpret meta-analysis that combine studies using different probiotic products, because you are not comparing like for like. The best option we have at the moment is look at studies on specific probiotics and whether they show any evidence of positive benefits (providing the studies are of high quality!).

Live microorganisms are found in fermented products such as kefir, kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut. They cannot be called probiotic products in the EU and UK, because they do not fit the World Health Organisation definition of a probiotic product (see the beginning of this post). We do not know what bacteria strains or how much bacteria a fermented product that you produce at home or buy in a shop contain, therefore, we cannot know exactly what benefits it may bring. Although there is some evidence to suggest that fermented products may offer benefits similar to probiotic supplements, they cannot be prescribed as a treatment for a condition or a disease.

Fermented foods can be a delicious addition to everyone's diet. The fermentation process can make certain foods more easy to tolerate (i.e. sourdough bread and fermented diary= kefir and yoghurt), so they may be preferable if you tend to have difficulties with the unfermented counterparts (i.e. regular yeast bread or regular milk). In addition to improved digestibility and the potential benefit of live microorganisms within, fermented foods contain more vitamins (esp. B12 and folate). If you don’t usually have fermented foods in your diet and want to change this, do so slowly! Too much too quickly can make you experience unpleasant digestive symptoms, especially gassiness and bloating…


Sunshine Vitamin

Vitamin D is the only vitamin that can be made in our skin in with the help of sunshine, more specifically, the ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. During the summer months, we get most of this vitamin through sunshine-skin collaboration. But from October through to early March, UK sunshine isn’t UVB – rich enough, so our skin isn't producing any significant amounts..

Why is getting enough important? Vitamin D helps calcium being absorbed in the gut and supports bone health. Without sufficient vitamin D, bones can become thin and brittle and in older adults can lead to osteoporosis. Other perhaps less well known benefits of vitamin D include reduction of inflammation, neuromuscular and immune function, glucose metabolism and mental wellbeing.

A report carried out by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), suggests that everyone over the age of 1 needs to consume 10 micrograms (400IU) of vitamin D each day… This advice also applies to pregnant and breastfeeding women. Adults should not take more than 100µg (4000IU) a day, unless recommended by a doctor or a Dietitian, because too much vitamin D can be harmful.

NOTE: it's a fat soluble vitamin, so best if you take your supplement with a meal.


Let’s talk about caffeine (& enjoy our morning coffee)

Caffeine is often unfairly criticised by some, but this is not justified when the evidence from research studies on moderate intakes is considered.In fact, moderate caffeine intake has been associated* with a reduced risk of heart disease in adults. Caffeine also has desirable short-term effects, such as improved alertness, concentration, and reduced perception of fatigue and pain.

Safe upper levels for caffeine consumption for healthy adults (report by EFSA**) have been defined as no more than 200mg as a single dose, and no more than 400mg as a daily dose.

Caffeine content of common drinks (per serving):

  •  espresso: 140mg
  •  filter coffee: 90mg
  •  black tea (teabag): 50mg
  •  decaff coffee: 15mg

Based on the above, up to 8 cups of tea or 2 cups of espresso, can be safely consumed as part of a balanced diet. However, what caffeine should not be used for, is to compensate for inadequate food intake or lack or sleep. Although it may feel like it's helping short-term, it may mess up your hunger signals, make you feel anxious and further disrupt your sleep..

*association studies do not suggest cause & effect, but merely a link, therefore, evidence from these studies need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

**(EFSA) European Food Safety Authority


International Women's Day

To mark the international women’s day, I’d like to share some thoughts on Sexual Objectification (SO) Theory. It proposes that SO contributes to mental health problems and disproportionately affect women (i.e. Eating Disorders, depression and sexual dysfuntion) via two main paths: SO experiences and self-objectification.

When media presents women in body parts rather than thinking and feeling humans, we, women, learn to turn that gaze upon ourselves. We internalise this outsider view and begin to self-objectify by treating ourselves as an object to be looked at and evaluated on the basis of appearance (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). This takes away from everything more important that we could be focusing on, such as good friendships, talents, hobbies and dreams...  To all girls out there, I wish the power to overcome self-objectification and start living your life to the full.


Exercise

My clients often ask me what exercise they should be doing and for how long for ‘optimal health’. The truth is that you could have the most ‘perfect’ exercise prescription, but you won’t be able to sustain it, unless you ENJOY it... A growing body of research shows that getting pleasure from physical activities may be one of the most important factors for sustaining consistent exercise. So it’s not the frequency, intensity and duration that you need to be thinking about, but what you FEEL LIKE and WHAT FEELS GOOD... This concept of engaging in activities that you enjoy or that give you increased energy or an improved mood is based on the Hedonic Theory of Motivation. This theory basically says that people will repeat activities that feel good. Conversely, activities that cause pain or discomfort will wane or be avoided. Discover physical activity that you truly enjoy and ditch all exercise that feels like punishment/ something that ‘you should be doing’. So what do you enjoy?