Can probiotics help to strengthen your bones?

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Emma Thornton
Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
@EmmaThornton
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06 July 2018

How does your gut health impact your bones?

Did you know that the average human body contains 10 times more bacteria than human cells?1 Right now your body is host to trillions upon trillions of bacteria that form your gut microbiota. Sometimes known as the ‘forgotten organ’ your gut microbiota is crucial when it comes to the health of not only your digestive tract, but also your immune system and now, according to research, possibly your bones too!

A recent study conducted carried out by researchers from the University of Gothenburg and Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Sweden, found that probiotic strains of friendly gut bacteria, particularly Lactobacillus reuteri, may help to maintain healthy bone density. The study involved 90 female participants aged 75-80, all of whom displayed low bone-mineral density.2    

These participants were randomised to receive either a placebo or a probiotic. After a year, their bone density was reassessed and it was found that those who had taken the probiotic lost around 1% less density than the placebo group. This might not seem like much but considering the relatively small study size, researchers were hopeful. 

However, you might be wondering how exactly your gut bacteria can benefit your bones? Well, unsurprisingly, what happens in your gut can impact almost every other area of your body but let’s get a bit more specific – let’s look at two of the main reasons why your gut is so important for your bones!

You need a healthy gut for healthy absorption

Your gut microbiota plays an extremely important role when it comes to breaking down the food in your digestive tract. They feed on carbohydrates, sugar and protein, helping to break them down into forms that can be easily absorbed and utilised by the rest of your body. This includes breaking down carbohydrates into glucose, your body’s main fuel source or, in the case of lactic acid bacteria, improving the digestibility of casein, a protein found in dairy products.

Unsurprisingly then, the health of your gut microbiota can also impact how well certain nutrients, such as magnesium, calcium and vitamin K are absorbed. If your gut microbiota is working properly then it means that these nutrients can be utilised to support your bones, however, if you experience gut dysbiosis, then problems can arise. 

Gut dysbiosis occurs when there is an imbalance in your gut, usually when unfriendly bacteria start to overpopulate and decrease your levels of friendly bacteria. If this happens not only can you experience an unpleasant range of symptoms (more on this later…) how you absorb vitamins and minerals can be impacted too. Also, if your bones are not getting the vitamins and minerals they need, their overall health can be affected, sometimes leading to deficiencies or even conditions such as osteoarthritis. 

You need a healthy gut to avoid inflammation

I’ve spoken a little bit about gut dysbiosis but now I’m going to go into slightly more depths about the symptoms it causes, how this can lead to systemic inflammation, and how this impacts your bones. Let’s start with the symptoms – gut dysbiosis is often associated with unpleasant symptoms such as cramping, constipation, diarrhoea and bloating. However, sometimes it can also cause wider issues such as Leaky Gut Syndrome

What is Leaky Gut Syndrome? Well, imagine that your intestines are lined by a mesh-like barrier. This barrier, composed of specialised epithelial cells, acts a sort of guard between your intestines and your bloodstream, regulating what goes in and out. When you experience gut dysbiosis, it can increase the permeability of this barrier, allowing undigested food particles, toxins and bacteria to enter your bloodstream. 

Naturally your immune system is immediately alerted and triggers an inflammatory response. This inflammatory response is the real problem for your bones as, when you experience inflammation, your body will be producing more pro-inflammatory cytokines which contribute to bone density loss.3 

What can you do to support your gut microbiota

By now you should be starting to get an idea of how critical your gut microbiota is to your bones – and I’ve only discussed two reasons! There really is a reason why your gut is known as your body’s second brain but for now I’m going to talk about what you can do to support your gut microbiota, and by extension, your bones. 

1 - Ditch the refined sugar
Cake, crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks – you might love these foods, but rest assured, so do the unfriendly bacteria in your gut. Every time you eat these foods, you are essentially providing them with foods which can promote gut dysbiosis. If you really want to improve the health of your gut, I’d recommend taking a good look at your diet and reducing your intake of refined sugars. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional Dairy Milk or scoop of ice cream, provided you don’t turn these treats into a daily habit. 

2 - Include more fermented foods
Okay, so less about what you shouldn’t be having and more about what you should. Our Digestion Advisor Ali has spoken a little bit about fermented foods before in her blog ‘My Guide to Fermented Foods for a Flatter Tum’, in which she does mention how they can benefit your gut, supporting your friendly gut bacteria and preventing dysbiosis. Including a few fermented foods in your diet can make a real difference and you don’t have to be limited to sauerkraut. Kefir, kimichi, yoghurt – there’s so many options these days and so many ways to incorporate them – just take a look at my recipe for Fermented Ketchup if you need any inspiration!

3 - Consider a prebiotic
Probiotics might help to supply your gut with friendly bacteria but these bacteria are unlikely to thrive if you have a poor gut environment. Prebiotics essentially help to feed your friendly bacteria, creating a more ideal gut environment. In combination, pre and probiotics work to enhance your digestive health, preventing dysbiosis which can help to maintain healthy bones. I’d recommend trying our Molkosan Prebiotic, which is a rich in L+ lactic acid to help support your gut environment. You can take a tablespoon of it in a little water, but I personally prefer to mix mine into delicious fruit smoothies. 

4 - Exercise regularly
You might be thinking ‘what on earth does exercise have to do with my gut bacteria?’ but actually a recent study suggests that exercise alone may be able to alter our gut microbiota! In one study, published in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise journal, researchers studied 32 sedentary individuals, 14 of which were obese while the other 18 were lean. These participants then had to take part in an exercise programme for 6 weeks before reverting back to their usual, sedentary behaviour for another 6 weeks. All participants kept to their usual diets throughout the study but researchers found that all participants experienced an increase in SCFA levels after completing the programme (SCFA is produced by gut microbes).4 If you’re concerned about your bones, I wouldn’t recommend embarking on an intense exercise regime – although high impact is best, dancing or hiking might be better suited if you’re a beginner!

5 - Think more about probiotics
Finally, as I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, there are probiotics. Making sure that your gut has a good supply of friendly bacteria is essential to your digestive health and there will be times (if you’re prescribed antibiotics for example) when taking probiotics may become more advisable. Optibac is one of my favourite probiotic brands and I’d highly recommend them – not only do they seem to have a probiotic for every occasion, whether you’re travelling, on antibiotics or  are worried about your immune system, they can also provide a considerable amount of research to back up their products!

1https://www.betterbones.com/bone-nutrition/probiotics-for-osteoporosis-osteopenia/

2https://www.nhs.uk/news/older-people/probiotics-may-help-strengthen-bones-older-adults/

3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25298539

4https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320264.php

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