We speak to nutritional therapist Hannah Braye, technical advisor at ADM Protexin, manufacturers of the Bio-Kult and Lepicol ranges, to find out about the role that the bacteria in our gut plays and how we can help support it…
The bacteria in your gut are incredibly important for our health. When we hear the word ‘bacteria’, it generally conjures up negative connotations – but our digestive system is actually made up of hundreds of different types of bacteria, some beneficial and others pathogenic. So it’s vital we learn how to support these beneficial bacteria, to help support not just our digestive health, but our overall health too.
We’ve asked an expert, Hannah Braye, to answer all the important questions about gut bacteria, the role it plays and what we can do to ensure we have a healthy gut flora:
How important is our gut bacteria?
Latest research suggests we are home to as many bacteria as we are human cells. Although our gut bacteria are a distinct entity to us, they are so intrinsically linked to our health that they are increasingly being viewed as a real organ of the body. Our gut bacteria exert important metabolic functions, and regulate the inflammatory response via the immune system. Gut microbial imbalance (dysbiosis) has been linked to many human diseases such as allergies, metabolic diseases including obesity and diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), neurodegenerative disorders and mental health disorders (to name just a few). Many studies have shown that the gut microbiome has a fundamental role in maintaining homeostasis and balance not only in the intestines but throughout the entire human body.
What role does our gut bacteria play in terms of overall health?
Beneficial species of bacteria in the gut help to support good health in a variety of ways. For example, they help to protect us against pathogens (disease causing microbes) by competing for nutrients and space on the gut lining and secreting antimicrobial substances. They also help to lower the pH in the gut, making it more difficult for pathogens to thrive. Our gut bacteria also communicate directly with our immune system (70 percent of which is located within the gut), helping to strengthen our defences.
Our gut bacteria also provide us with extra nutrition. Certain fibres aren’t digestible by humans, and it is only when they are fermented by our gut bacteria that we can derive benefit from by-products such as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Our gut bacteria also synthesise vitamins such as vitamin K (needed for blood clotting) and B vitamins (needed for energy production).
In addition, beneficial species help support detoxification processes in the body by binding to heavy metals and toxins in the gut, and reducing the workload for the liver.
The gut-brain axis, and in particular how the balance of bacteria in the gut may affect brain health and mood, is an exciting and rapidly evolving area of research. Changes in the gut microbiome, caused by diet and lifestyle factors, are being implicated in a variety of mood and cognitive related conditions.
How does it affect our digestive system?
As well as helping to protect us against pathogens in the gut, having a healthy microbiome is important to ensure regular bowel movements, as our gut bacteria help to stimulate peristalsis and regulate gut motility. Some species of beneficial bacteria also help us digest our food by producing enzymes such as lactase, which helps break down lactose (the sugar found in milk). They also support the health of the gut lining, preventing intestinal hyper-permeability (known as ‘leaky gut’), which protects against inflammation both in the digestive system and more systemically. A healthy gut lining also helps us to absorb more nutrients from our food.
Dysbiosis (an imbalance of gut bacteria) is associated with numerous digestive conditions. For example, a growing body of evidence indicates dysbiosis to be a hallmark of IBS. Bloating can be a sign of dysbiosis in the gut, as beneficial species of bacteria produce little (if any) gas when fermenting fibres, whereas pathogenic species tend to produce more gas.
How can we ensure we support our gut bacteria?
Research is indicating that having a diverse gut microbiome, with lots of different beneficial species, is a key determinant for good health. In order to encourage diversity in the gut it’s recommended to:
Eat a wide variety of different plant foods. Recent research shows the more plants foods you eat (ideally over 30 different types a week), the greater the diversity in the gut, regardless of other dietary factors.
In particular, eat plenty of foods high in prebiotic fibres, such as garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, slightly under ripe bananas, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus and dandelion greens, as these provide a food source for beneficial species in the gut.
Introduce beneficial species to the gut by regularly consuming traditionally fermented foods such as kefir, live yoghurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and miso. These tend to be particularly high in beneficial Lactobacilli and Streptococcus.
Increase your intake of polyphenol rich foods such as berries, green tea, raw cacao, cloves, star anise and other herbs and spices. Polyphenols are packed with antioxidants and are associated with numerous potential health benefits, including increasing beneficial species of bacteria in the gut and inhibiting pathogens.
Regularly spend time outdoors and near animals, for example by taking country walks, signing up to an exercise class in the park, visiting farms and animal sanctuaries or walking a neighbour’s dog.
Regularly take a good quality live bacteria supplement such as Bio-Kult Advanced Multi-Strain Formulation, providing 14 different strains. Bio-Kult Advanced was recently used in the largest-ever double-blind randomised controlled trial of live bacteria supplements in IBS patients ever-conducted. The study in 400 people found that Bio-Kult significantly improved overall symptom severity in IBS patients and was well tolerated. Abdominal pain reduced by an average of 69 percent, and 34 percent of participants were completely symptom free at the end of the four month trial.