How Probiotics & Prebiotics can help hardgainers keep healthy

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Currently, there is huge interest in the use of foods which may exert a positive functional effect on our health (immune and gut). Two of these functional foods are known as probiotics and prebiotics, both of which have a favourable effect on the ‘good’ bacteria that reside in our digestive systems, also known as our gut microflora. These 'good' bacteria live naturally in our intestines and are essential to good health, having a number of positive effects, primarily helping our digestive systems work efficiently. We traditionally view bacteria as being 'bad'; however in reality there are relatively only a small number of strains which are pathogenic and most microbes are harmless and contribute to well-being (Gibson 2003).

Probiotics are live strains of these 'good' bacteria, which help our digestive system work efficiently, e.g. bifidus, lactobacillus and acidophilus, as you may have seen in many live yoghurts on the super market shelfs.. A probiotic may be defined as: 'A preparation or product containing viable, defined micro-organisms in sufficient numbers, which alter the microflora of the host intestine and, by that, exert beneficial health effects on the host' (Schrezenmeier & De Vrese 2001).

Probiotics are found in live yoghurts or specially formulated powders, supplement pills or probiotic drinks which contain one or more of the strains of these bacteria. With food processing, pollution and especially the use of antibiotics, the numbers of bacteria living naturally in our gut are reduced, and research has shown, by actively consuming the bacteria, the size of the colonies in the gut can be increased, which improves our digestion of food. Moreover, numerous studies have also shown that with optimal numbers of 'good' bacteria, the immune system is improved, increasing our ability to fight disease (Gibson & Roberfroid 1995). Probiotics may also have a role in reducing the severity of food allergies and intolerances and may help reduce severity of symptoms in both osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis.

If you're into bodybuilding (hardgainer?) and need to pack on size and muscle, you'll need to be eating high amounts of calories. Having a healthy digestion system will ensure you can consume these calories with less chance of stomach upsets, bloating and wind, sometimes caused by consuming the high calories needed for bulking up.

Prebiotics are certain nutrients and constituents of food which our gut flora (good bacteria) feed on, thus increasing their numbers. Prebiotics include fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and some other soluble fibres found in pulses, fruit and some cereal products. Thus, prebiotics also help digestion and the immune system, by increasing microflora levels.

Prebiotics have also been incorporated into supplements and functional foods, in order to exert positive effects on the digestion, the immune system and possibly some degenerative diseases.

Simply put, probiotics are foods which provide the actual 'good' bacteria, and prebiotics are nutrients which the bacteria feed on to increase their numbers. The effect of a probiotic may be enhanced by having a prebiotic as the support medium; for example milk contains nutrients for lactobacillus, and so many probiotic drinks are milk or yoghurt-based.

Probiotics and prebiotic formulas are proving very popular and many of you will have seen them on television, in consumer press and in the shops. This is because, unlike many nutrition fads, the evidence that they promote good health is strong. Not only do they help us digest our food, but they may also help reduce severity of food poisoning and reduce effects of food intolerance. Users report that formulas also help improve general well-being and they may help improve performance in sport.

One consumer group who have showed an interest are arthritis sufferers. Anecdotal evidence for this is very strong, i.e. a lot of sufferers of both rheumatoid and osteo-arthritis have indicated reduction in severity of symptoms. However there have been no well designed trials on such patients to date.

Unless there is a rare specific reason as to why an individual should not use probiotic formulas, it is strongly recommended that we all include them in our daily nutrition in order to help symptoms of disorders or merely to promote general good health and well being.

A word of caution though, prebiotics are useful as mentioned, but excessive use of them with result in extra wind, as they are not easily digested, instead they are designed to provide nutrition to healthy bacteria (probiotics). Due to prebiotics being labeled as fibre and not digested by the body, some brands include excessive prebiotics to create a specific macro nutrient profile on their labels, ie; low carb, low calories, etc…. So the message is, probiotics are highly beneficial and will boost your gut health and immune system and… Prebiotics are also good, but if you think you are having excessive wind, look at the ingredients and make sure you are not consuming too many food products with; FOS; Fructo-Oligosaccharides; Neosugar; Oligofructose; Raftilose

Don't forget that these natural foods also contain oligofructose, so if you're eating a lot of these food and suffering wind, this could be a reason; Beer, Bananas, Rye, Oats, Chicory (root), Burdock, Leeks, Onions, Tomatoes, Garlic, Asparagus, Jerusalem Artichoke

If you find that 'foods' containing oligofructose causes excessive wind, you may find that another prebiotic called Inulin is better. It is thought that Inulin may produce superior therapeutic results compared with Fructooligosaccharides, as Inulin does not provide nourishment to Detrimental Bacteria, such as Candida.

More information…

1. Gibson GR (2003). Probiotics & Prebiotics and their Function. Functional Nutrition 2 (2): 11-13
2. Schrezenmeier J, De Vrese M (2001). Probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics – approaching a definition. Am J Clin Nutr 73 (Suppl) 361s-364s
3. Gibson GR, Roberfroid MB (1995). Dietary modulation of the human colonic microbiotica: introducing the concept of prebiotics. J of Nutr 125: 1401-1412

By James Collier BSc (Hons), RNutr.
James Collier BSc (Hons) R Nutr is an experienced nutrition consultant and is head of the Nutrition Consultancy Healthy Action who provide completely tailored and personalised nutrition and exercise advice for all sports, fitness, bodybuilding, weight loss, food intolerance and all nutritional issues. Consultants are also available for writing, seminars, lecturing and larger nutritional projects.

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