Discover the link between probiotics and good digestive health…
Trillions of bacteria live in your gut, forming what is commonly referred to as the gut microbiome. These bacterial cells inhibit every inch of your gastrointestinal tract, which have a major influence on your immune and digestive function, and even your metabolism, mood and weight regulation.
“More than 2,000 years ago Hippocrates said that ‘all disease begins in the gut’. We feel this is still relevant today and believe too that means that optimal health throughout the body must also begin in the gut,” comments nutritional therapist Hannah Braye, senior technical advisor at ADM Protexin, manufacturers of the Bio-Kult and Lepicol ranges.
She continues: “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.”
Research into the gut microbiome has exploded in the last couple of decades. Once considered just to be involved in the workings of the gastrointestinal system, we now know that it influences the efficiency and functions of many of our bodily processes.
Nutritional therapist Katherine Pardo, nutrition team manager at Nutri Advanced, explains: “Gut bacteria can influence pretty much every aspect of health, from bowel function, immune system health, infection risk, skin health, allergy and healthy ageing to blood sugar balance, mental health, brain function and much more.
“It is absolutely vital to protect, nurture and preserve this delicate internal ecosystem. Your health depends on it!”
It is estimated that the gut hosts around 500 to 1,000 different species of bacteria, some pathogenic and others beneficial. Experts agree that we need to encourage the growth of ‘friendly’ or ‘beneficial’ bacteria in order to support the microbiome and promote good digestive health.
“Bacteria have a number of important roles in digestive health, including helping to control the growth of any harmful bacteria and breaking down fibre in the gut,” explains nutritionist Rose Homes, education and training manager at Rio Health.
Braye adds: “Some species of beneficial bacteria 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.”
Beneficial bacteria support good digestion. They ensure that food is properly digested, nutrients are effectively absorbed, and they encourage regular bowel movements.
It’s not just our digestive health that benefits from a healthy gut microbiota, Holmes explains: “We have a symbiotic relationship with our good bacteria, with mutual benefit – for example, our ‘friendly bacteria’ help us produce vitamin B12 and vitamin K, which are important for overall health.
“Our gut flora also creates a barrier effect in the immune system and play a role also in all-body immune health, as well as gut immune response. The gut microbiome has a proven role in inflammation and autoimmune disease. A healthy balance therefore is essential to promote good overall health.”
In fact, 70 to 80 percent of your immune system is found in your gut. Also, the health of your microbiome can have a huge impact on your mood, as your gut is responsible for producing 95 percent of serotonin – the body’s happy neurotransmitter.
“The gut microbiome helps the body to absorb nutrients, it fights infections and produces health-promoting substances,” comments Pardo. “It supports lactose digestion, makes some essential vitamins, supports regular bowel movements, creates enzymes that destroy harmful bacteria, crowds out harmful organisms, protects your health, helps your body to functional properly, protects against toxins, and, finally, it regulates the health effects of diet and lifestyle choices.”
A healthy gut contains around 85 percent ‘good’ and 15 percent ‘bad’ bacteria; when this balance shifts more in favour of pathogenic organisms, this is known as gut dysbiosis.
“Dysbiosis is an imbalance of gut bacteria,” comments Braye. “It 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.
“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. It can also be indicated in numerous symptoms that may at first not be seen to be related to the gut, such as skin conditions, vaginal health, urinary tract infections, fatigue, weight gain, poor concentration, anxiety, low mood, and migraines.”
With over 70 percent of the immune system situated and functioning in the gastrointestinal tract and influenced by the microbial balance there, any inflammatory condition could arise if gut health is not maintained. Many experts now believe that the development of autoimmune disorders begins in the gut.
“An imbalance in gut microbes and intestinal inflammation is increasingly linked to debilitating inflammatory joint and bone conditions such as arthritis and osteoporosis. An imbalance of gut flora, and subsequent inflammation, has by some researchers been associated with the initial development of cancer, namely bowel cancer,” explains Braye.
“Many people have experienced some of the effects of dysbiosis after using antibiotics, which kill bacteria indiscriminately, affecting both the good and bad bacteria,” adds Holmes.
Increase Good Bacteria
You can increase the level of good gut bacteria and support a healthy balance of bacteria in your gut through some simply dietary changes.
“The typical Western diet, which is high in sugar, saturated fats and processed foods, can harm the gut microbiome,” explains Pardo. “Other things can that can harm it include a low fibre diet, gluten, GMO foods and alcohol.
“However, there are things that can nurture a healthy gut microbiome. Aim for a wide variety of fruits and vegetables (aim for 30 different types a week), eat plenty of fibre (chia seeds, flax seeds) and increase your consumption of fermented foods – such as live yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, miso and kimchi. Also try sweet potato and apple cider vinegar.”
“Research is indicating that having a diverse gut microbiome, with lots of different beneficial species is a key determinant for good health,” comments Braye. “In order to encourage diversity in the gut it’s recommended to eat a wide variety of different plant foods and 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.
“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.”
Prebiotics are non-digestible fibres that help stimulate the growth of good bacteria. They can help maximise the beneficial effects of probiotics, giving the live bacteria a boost. “Other prebiotic foods include chicory, apple skin and beans,” adds Holmes.
If you want to ensure you are providing a healthy balance of bacteria, you can opt for a probiotic supplement. It’s best to look for a multi-strain formation with a high bacterial count per capsule.
“Taking a daily probiotic supplement can be a useful way to help nurture a healthy gut microbiome,” agrees Pardo. “Two of the best-known types of probiotic bacteria are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium as these are known to be prevalent in a healthy human gut.”