You have literally trillions of bacteria that inhabit your body, most of which live along the entire length of your gastrointestinal tract. In fact, a healthy human intestinal tract hosts 10 times as many bacteria, as there are cells in the human body. You are like a walking, living factory of bacteria. Is this bad? No, not if the bacteria that reside there are mostly the “good” or “friendly” kind. If, however, your body is overpopulated with “bad” or “harmful” bacteria, your health may be severely compromised. Here is what you need to know.
The “good” bacteria that live in your body are enormously important to your health. There is almost nothing they can’t do! First and foremost, they are crucial to a healthy immune system – about 70% of your immune system resides in your gut! They are your first and primary defence against harmful bacteria, toxins and allergy-causing proteins. They communicate intimately with the immune cells that are very concentrated in your small intestine. In the colon, they produce anti-microbial agents that provide protection against harmful bacteria and viruses, as well as compounds that fight cancer. They create barriers that stop toxins from entering your body. These good or friendly bacteria are also essential for the digestion of food, helping you get energy from food and for the processing of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They help your body absorb calcium, make vitamin K and to efficiently handle fats and sugars.
What happens if you don’t have enough good bacteria working hard to keep you healthy? You may increase your risk of infection, including the common cold, bronchitis, pneumonia and the flu. Your risk of many different types of disease may increase, including inflammatory bowel diseases, skin diseases (like dermatitis, psoriasis and eczema), rheumatoid arthritis and cancer of the colon. You may be more likely to suffer from diarrhea, constipation, gas, inflammation, lactose intolerance, stomach ulcers and food allergies. Your chance of having a heart attack or stroke may increase, as well as your risk of developing diabetes. Lack of good bacteria can even impact your ability to maintain a healthy body weight, your energy level and your overall well-being. A healthy gut has a huge impact on your health!
How can you keep your gut healthy and the good bacteria thriving? Babies who are breastfed definitely start out life at an advantage due to the large numbers of good bacteria found in breast milk. Breast-feeding is strongly encouraged. What you eat on a daily basis also has a huge impact on the health of your gut. A diet made up of lots of processed and refined foods and high in sugar and unhealthy fats is extremely detrimental to gut health. In contrast, a diet rich in plant foods like whole fruits and vegetables (with the skin on), 100% whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds contribute significantly to the health of your gastrointestinal tract. As for antibiotics, take them only if you need to. Antibiotics kill harmful bacteria, but healthy bacteria as well.
What about prebiotics? In simple terms, prebiotics are “food” for good bacteria. They help the good bacteria in your gut to grow and thrive. For a food or ingredient to qualify as a prebiotic, it must contain substances, like fibre, that are resistant to absorption and digestion. When prebiotic substances reach the colon they are fermented and that is how they provide food for the good bacteria to grow. Consuming a diet that is very high in fibre (more beans please!) and contains all the plant foods previously mentioned is important. Specific food ingredients, including inulin and resistant starch, have also been identified as prebiotic.
What about probiotics? Probiotics are live bacteria which, when consumed in adequate amounts, are beneficial to your health. Fermented foods, such as yogurt, buttermilk, kefir and sauerkraut are a source of live bacteria, as well as fermented soybean products like miso and tempeh. The amount of live bacteria they contain, however, is quite variable. Probiotic supplements and food items like yogurt that contain “added live bacterial cultures” contain very large, standard doses of bacteria (billions of healthy bacteria, usually lactobacillus or bifida bacteria) and therefore, are more likely to have a significant impact on gut health.
Should you take a probiotic supplement or eat foods, like yogurt, that contain added probiotics? Eating a healthy, high-fibre, plant-based diet is one of the most important things you can do for gut health. Eating foods or taking a supplement with added live bacteria, however, can provide additional protection for your health. We still have much to learn. Prebiotic and probiotic research is still in its infancy. Scientists are still trying to determine which strains of bacteria (there are as many as 1000 different strains that live in your gut) are most important to good health. Different types or strains of bacteria are linked to different health benefits. For example, one strain may be beneficial for constipation, while another may reduce your risk of infection. If you choose to consume a food item, like yogurt, with added probiotics (dairy products are considered a great carrier for probiotics) or if you take a probiotic supplement, choose a well-known brand. For example, brands like Dannon, Yoplait, Bio-K Plus and Jamieson have good research support behind the probiotic products they produce.
The “good” or “friendly” bacteria that live along your gastrointestinal tract have a tremendous impact on your health. They are crucial to a healthy immune system and play an incredible role in the prevention of disease. A high fibre, plant based diet helps support a healthy gut and provides food for the bacteria that live there. Foods, like yogurt, or supplements with added live bacteria (probiotics) can provide additional protection.