Knowledge around gut health is ever increasing. On average, the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract is home to over 10 trillion bacteria – this is more than we have cells! Our microbiome (the bacteria which make up our gut) really is its own intelligent system in itself. It is incredibly complex, and we still don’t completely understand it but we certainly have learned a lot.
The bacteria in our gut can impact our mood, weight, immune system, hormones, detoxification ability and can be a large risk factor in the development of chronic disease such as inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer’s, autism, asthma, depression and obesity. This connection has been well researched and established. If you think about it, given we are more bacteria than we are cells, it does make sense. Our whole body is connected and in fact, most of our neurotransmitters including serotonin (the happy, feel good hormone) are made in our gut. So, if our gut is unhappy, we will be unhappy.
The gut bacteria also perform other metabolic functions such as salvaging energy, production of vitamins including K and B12 and absorption of minerals including calcium, magnesium and iron. It also has a role in the production of cells in the intestine and in balancing the immune system. It provides a barrier against pathogens which may cause infection.
The composition of a person’s gut flora be thrown out of balance due to poor diet, stress, infections, food intolerances, alcohol, medications and antibiotics. This can lead to an imbalance known as dysbiosis, which can go on to cause intestinal permeability (leaky gut) which can cause other conditions including those above.
Probiotics are well known and largely marketed. However, what is becoming clear is that it is the particular strain of probiotic that is important. It is like vitamins – if someone takes a vitamin they don’t need more of, they will not necessarily see a benefit. If someone takes a probiotic for a particular strain which they already have enough of, or which is not specific to their condition, they will not necessarily see a benefit. If you are going to invest the money, it is worth seeing a practitioner who can help you identify the particular strains that you need.
That being said, prebiotics are just as, if not more, important in rebuilding healthy colonies of bacteria. Taking a probiotic is not necessarily going to repopulate the bacteria you need – the bacteria needs the right environment to thrive, and this is where prebiotics come in. The probiotics that you take will only survive in the right environment. Prebiotics are fibres which are indigestible to humans but are fermented by the gut bacteria and used as food. They are found in fruits and vegetables, specifically foods such as garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, berries and legumes. Resistant starch is a particularly beneficial type of fibre which is in cooked and cooled potatoes and under-ripe bananas.
Like everything, diversity is important!
The more I read about this, the more I understand and appreciate our ‘gut brain’ and the philosophy of healing the gut. Everything seems to come back to the gut!