Are probiotics the secret to diet success? I remember so clearly when I was a size 10 and the joy of looking fabulous in whatever I threw on. That was at least 30 years ago now - apart from one brief stint when I was so traumatised by my divorce that I couldn't put food in my mouth for months and rapidly lost stones. I think then I even managed to scrape for a brief time the magic number of size 8. That was the only good side effect to a horrible period! But those days have long gone.
Ageing and weight gain
With every decade, I climb another step up the size ladder. A few months ago was shocked to find a size 14 felt tight across my hips. That frightened me back into some sort of control, but losing weight is no longer the simple exercise it used to be. It simply refuses to drop off. It may be slow metabolism, hormones or simply the process of ageing. But when I read somewhere that probiotics were now considered the secret to successful dieting, I decided to investigate further. And reader, the news is positive. This could be the way forward for all of us to a healthy, slimmer, future. Think of your knees and ankles, freed from the weight that cripples them as youth slips away and sedentary habits do their worst.
I have taken probiotics randomly, from time to time over the past 20 years. They’re one of those supplements that you know are good for you but never fully understand why. There was never much obvious information about the millions of different strains of bacteria inside the bottles, and little explanation as to why you needed them or what each variety did.
Do antibiotics cause weight gain?
I knew that antibiotics, those pills that the doctors hand out in their thousands, destroyed all the good bacteria in your gut, leaving you vulnerable to all sorts of viruses that might come your way, weakening your immune system in the process. And I knew that probiotics had to be taken after every round of the drugs, to re-populate your gut with the bacteria that keep it healthy. I also knew that every round of antibiotics wipes out your microbes, like an atomic bomb blasting through your gut. And I had been told that antibiotics changed your gut flora toxically, with each round ending up making you fatter. Studies in mice and humans show that early exposure to antibiotics makes being overweight later in life more likely. But as to understanding exactly how probiotics protect against weight gain that was more of a mystery to me.
Increasing evidence shows that probiotics taken regularly can protect against a whole host of health problems, as well as having the pleasing side effect of helping you to maintain a healthy weight. I signed up for the College of Medicines one day seminar on food and health, specifically to listen to Dr Tim Spector lecture on 'Diet, myths and microbes'. He has written an extremely good book on the topic, but he is worth tracking down to listen to in person. Charming and funny, he is an extremely good speaker and the information he provides, with all the science behind the facts, is little less than mind blowing.
Why is gut bacteria important?
Probiotics can resolve innumerable health issues purely by rebalancing the flora in your gut. The microbiome, the bacterial content of your gut, consists of over 100 trillion microbes. That is around 4lbs of your body weight. And the important thing to understand here is that all of us have an entirely different composition of microbes. We only share approximately 20% with other people. So the recipe for healing your own gut issues with probiotics has to be individual. One size of probiotic does not fit all.
If you have weight issues, it may well be down to the type of microbes that are living in your gut. There is evidence that skinny people have a healthy flourishing microbiome, whereas those with a barren, antibiotic-blasted microbiome often end up sick or overweight. A particular strain called christensenella apparently stops you getting fat, as this study shows. I rushed to the health store to try and find it, but no luck. I have high hopes of tracking it down and will report back.
We get our initial microbe quota from our mothers in the birth canal, so if you were born via Caesarian section, you are already in a weaker position than your naturally birthed compatriots. Studies have shown that those born by caesarian have more problems with allergies and obesity because they simply don't have the same protective microbiome.
Feed your gut with probiotics
Look after your microbiome, and it will look after you. The microbes need fibre on which to feed. Your diet is hugely important, and the processed foods we all eat today, full of chemicals, unhealthy fats and sugar and emulsifiers but starved of fibre, decimates the gut bacteria. Probiotics can reboot your microbe numbers and repopulate your gut, sorting many health problems along the way.
Probiotics, as Dr Spector so descriptively put it, are the fertiliser for your gut garden. They can come in small bottles in the health food store, or from the food you put in your mouth each day. You have to feed your gut with appropriate medicine for it to flourish. Food should be the main provider, with probiotics as the icing on the proverbial cake.
Which foods to eat to feed good bacteria?
Unpasteurised cheese (which I have to stress is not a healthy food in large quantities!) is full of living probiotics, and each one containing different bacteria or fungus, offering a wide range of variety. The French have it right. Regular cheese eaters have less heart problems than the rest of us. Microbes love fibre and inulin, and Jerusalem artichokes are the best source of these. Leeks, onions and garlic are excellent foods, as are nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil and 70% chocolate. Yoghurt contains live microbes, as does kimchi, sauerkraut and other fermented foods. Kefir has five times as many bacteria as yoghurt. Soy and tempeh are also excellent sources of probiotics.
If you don’t feel you can do it through your diet, then supplementing with prebiotics may be your best way forward. These are small packets of specially designed fibre that your bacteria gobble up with delight. The microbe treat equivalent to my chocolate consumption. Prebiotin is the one I take, which contains both inulin and oligofructose and boosts bacterial growth in the entire colon.
Experimentation with rats has shown that probiotics can cure many diseases, and human trials have shown they can cure 90% of clostridium dificile, with huge improvements in colitis, arthritis, diabetes, and even cancer.
How to get your gut flora tested
To balance your gut flora, you need to find out precisely what balance of organisms you already have. The British Gut Project, is run out of Kings College, London in conjunction with the American gut project and aims to analyse and compare the microbial content in our British stomachs. When you know what you have too much or too little of, you can sort myriad health problems. They ask you for a donation, send you a kit for you to provide them with a sample, and 3 months later you will have your answer.
Once again, this time, your health is in your hands. I have sent my poo test off, and am awaiting my results with bated breath. I am expecting great things and to be a size 12 in no time at all! Here’s hoping.