One of the reasons your gut has so much influence over your health has to do with the 100 trillion bacteria — about three pounds worth — that line your intestinal tract. This is an extremely complex living system that aggressively protects your body from outside offenders.
In fact, 80 percent of your immune system is located in your digestive system, so if your digestive system is crawling with unhealthy bacteria, there’s a good chance your immune system will be suppressed as a result.
The ratio between the “good” bacteria and the other bacteria is one of the critical factors determining your optimal health, as the good bacteria are essential for:
- The proper development of your immune system
- Protection against over-growth of other microorganisms that could cause disease
- Digestion of food and absorption of nutrients
Why Else is it Important to Optimize Your Gut Bacteria?
Beyond the role gut flora has on your immune system, the probiotics in your gut also play a role in helping numerous bodily functions, such as:
- Digesting and absorbing certain carbohydrates
- Producing vitamins, absorbing minerals and eliminating toxins
- Keeping bad bacteria under control
- Preventing allergies. Friendly bacteria train your immune system to distinguish between pathogens and non-harmful antigens, and to respond appropriately.
The microflora in your digestive system is also emerging as a major player in weight management. A baby’s gut bacteria is linked to his or her future weight, and babies that are given the best start nutritionally by being breastfed (the source of your first immune-building good bacteria) also tend to have intestinal microflora in which beneficial bifidobacteria predominate over potentially harmful bacteria.
One Washington University professor likened the functioning of this gut microflora in your body to that of an ant farm that works together as an intelligence to perform an array of functions you’re unable to manage on your own.
One of those chores includes extracting calories from the foods you eat, and multiple studies have shown that obese people have different intestinal bacteria than slim people. It appears that the microbes in an overweight body are much more efficient at extracting calories from food.
So you can see that probiotics perform a wide variety of functions, which renders them useful and beneficial for a number of health concerns, including the prevention or control of:
What is the Best Way to Improve Your Gut Flora?
As the dietician in the above article pointed out, eating healthy foods designed for your nutritional type is the best way to maintain a healthy balance of good vs. bad bacteria in your digestive tract.
Part of “eating right” includes limiting sugars and grains. If you are eating as many sugars as the typical American then you are feeding the “bad” bacteria rather than promoting the “good” bacteria that help protect you from disease.
In addition to limiting the sugar and grains you eat, it’s also necessary to eat plenty of rich probiotic sources, and these come from fermented foods.
Fermented foods are part of nearly every traditional culture. As far back as Roman times, people ate sauerkraut because of its taste and benefits to overall health. In ancient Indian society it became commonplace (and still is) to enjoy a before-dinner yogurt drink called a lassi.
Bulgarians are known both for their longevity and their high consumption offermented milk and kefir. In Asian cultures, pickled fermentations of cabbage, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash and carrots still exist today. One such variety that I personally eat often is a type of fermented soy called natto.
If you eat a diet rich in fermented foods that have NOT been pasteurized (this will kill the probiotics), then you will likely enjoy great digestive health.
For ideas, some traditionally fermented foods you can try are:
It is important to note that traditionally fermented foods are not the equivalent of the same foods in commercially processed form. The best way to ensure you’re consuming the real thing is to prepare your own fermented foods at home, and Sally Fallon’s cookbook Nourishing Traditions is an excellent guide on how to do this.
You Might Not be Getting Enough Good Bacteria from the Food You Eat
If you eat a lot of processed foods or rely on mostly cooked foods, the balance of bacteria in your digestive tract will have a hard time staying optimal. And again, sugar is also an incredibly efficient fertilizer for growing bad bacteria and yeast in your gut, so if you indulge in a lot of it you’re fueling the bad bacteria.
Likewise, stress, pollution, and taking antibiotics can further upset your gut bacteria balance in a negative way.
So proper food choices will help shift the bacteria in your gut in the direction of the good guys, particularly if you avoid eating a lot of sugar and grains and eat plenty of fermented foods.
But, just like your lawn, sometimes you may need to “reseed” areas that have become barren for whatever reason.
This is why probiotics are one of only two supplements that are recommended to all new patients who come to the Natural Health Center (the other being an omega-3 fat supplement). It’s also one of the few supplements that I personally take every day.
Normally, you don’t need to take probiotics forever, but I have found them to be incredibly helpful at certain times, such as when you stray from your healthy diet and consume excess grains or sugar, or if you have to take antibiotics.
It’s also useful to take high-quality probiotics with you when you’re traveling in the event you get an infectious diarrhea. Typically, large doses of a high-quality probiotic — about one-half to one full bottle in one day — are quite useful for a rapid resolution of the diarrhea.
Healthy eating, not supplements, is the best way to keep the good bacteria in your gut healthy, says a dietitian and researcher. As with vitamins, it’s best to get the bacteria you need from healthy food rather than taking often expensive and potentially ineffective supplements, says Gail Cresci, Medical College of Georgia, dietitian and researcher.
She equates the good bacterium in your gastrointestinal tract to another living being inside that helps keeps you healthy.
“If you do good by your bacteria, they will do good by you,” Ms. Cresci says.
There is even mounting evidence that a healthy gut microbiota helps maintain a healthy weight. Studies have shown, for example, that when bacteria from a genetically fat mouse are placed in a lean germ-free mouse, it gains weight without changing its food intake.
Unfortunately poor diets are hurting the bacteria in many of us and the overuse of antibiotics is taking its toll as well, particularly the common, broad-spectrum antibiotics that wipe out anything in their path, good and bad bacteria included.
Cresci cites inadequate fiber and excess unhealthful fats as contributing to the problem, and states that a good daily diet has adequate high-quality protein, fiber, healthy fats and fresh fruits and vegetables.
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