As increasingly more studies have been published demonstrating the importance of gastrointestinal (GI) or “gut” health on our overall well being, naturally the popularity of methods to improve gut health has also become more mainstream. Enter probiotics. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization defines probiotics as “living microorganisms, which when administered in adequate amounts confer health benefits on the host”.
We have 10 times as many microbes in our body than we do human cells, and around 1000 different species. Some species have been associated with different health benefits, and the benefits of these little organisms have been known since 1907, when Elie Metchnikoff published a report linking the longevity of Bulgarians with consumption of fermented milk products containing Lactobacilli. Ever since, foods and supplements containing probiotics have been widely marketed and consumed.
Since the publishing of the Metchnikoff study in 1907, hundreds of additional studies have linked dysbiosis, or an imbalance of good and bad bacteria, to chronic diseases such as irritable bowel disease, certain cancers, the development of food allergies or intolerances, and even obesity. In addition, the gut and immune system are so closely linked that 70-80% of our immune system is found in our GI tract! As probiotics produce antimicrobial agents, consuming them prevents the overgrowth of potentially harmful agents, which may, for example, cause flatulence or increase your risk for any of the above mentioned diseases.
Studies have shown specifically consuming Lactobacillus strains enhances the integrity of the intestinal wall. When the integrity of the intestinal wall has been compromised, food, bacteria and toxins “leak” out and enter the blood stream. This could cause an autoimmune response and inflammation in the body that manifests as migraines, eczema, fatigue, food allergies, and more. This condition, known as leaky gut, is most frequently caused by a poor quality diet or eating foods such as wheat, dairy and soy, which are inflammatory for many.
Another benefit of a well-functioning gut is the impact it can have on your mental status. Just as a troubled brain can send signals and impact your gut, an unhealthy gut can send signals and impact your brain. This is known as the gut-brain axis. When dysbiosis is present and inflammation ensues, it increases your risk for a number of brain disorders, such as depression and Alzheimer’s disease, which have been associated with inflammation. Depression has also been associated with lipopolysaccharides (inflammatory toxins made from certain bacteria) leaking into the bloodstream due to leaky gut.
We Are Killing the Good Stuff
In our modern society we pasteurize many of the foods containing the good bacteria while feeding the bad bacteria with a feast of processed sugars and starches. We have also developed a mindset based on sanitizing, killing off, and avoiding bacteria whether it’s through the use of antibiotics, cleaning with bleach or other harsh chemicals, antibacterial soap, hand sanitizer, or even avoiding contact with healthy bacteria-teeming dirt. Although many of these products have a time and a place, their overuse will cause a depletion of good bacteria.
Building Up Good Bacteria
Fortunately, even if you have depleted your good bacteria there are ways to repopulate and balance the bacteria in your digestive system. Unless you are already eating a heathy, whole foods diet containing a variety of fermented foods, it is likely your gut microbiome could use some reinforcements.
Here are some ways to help improve the balance of your microbiome:
- Consume fermented foods and beverages daily. This includes foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, fermented vegetables, yogurt (preferably with zero or minimal added sugar) and naturally aged cheeses. Beverages include kombucha and water or milk kefir (recipe to come!). Different foods have different types of microbes so I recommend eating a variety of these!
- Eat plenty of prebiotics. This is the “food” probiotics use to flourish and grow. They include bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, dandelion greens, chicory and oats.
- Avoid processed sugars and grains. These foods can deplete good bacteria and ultimately impair immunity, leading to an increased risk of disease.
- Take a probiotic supplement. This can be a good complement to an already healthy diet or beneficial for someone experiencing digestive issues or food intolerances. For general use, choose a supplement with a wide variety of strains and a high CFU (colony-forming units) count – i.e in the billions. Also avoid supplements containing binders and fillers such as lactose or starch. For specific health issues, you will want to do your own research on beneficial strains or ask your provider (ideally a functional medicine practitioner) for a recommendation.
What do you think? Do you think you eat enough good bacteria? How do you plan to improve your microbiome? Tell me below!