Intestinal Heath: Benefits of probiotics
Have you ever heard of the term ‘microbiota’? I’m guessing you haven’t, but you should. Here’s why: the human microbiota plays an essential part in your immune system, may influence your behavior and mood, and is a key part of digesting your food. Human intestinal microbiota is a term used for the mass of microorganisms living in our guts. Some are beneficial, some are harmful and others are harmful only if their numbers are too large. The healthy bacteria help limit harmful bacteria growth, aid in digesting our food properly and boost our immune systems. Clearly, a well-balanced and health microbiota is an important part of maintaining a healthy digestive system, and one of the best ways to boost your microbiota health is through probiotics and prebiotics.
What is the microbiota?
Microbiota is a term describing the vast array of bacteria, fungi, archaea and viruses that live in our digestive tracts. There can be up 100 trillion microbial cells in your gut at any time, primarily bacteria, with over 1000 individual types, and the specific composition of the microbiota is as unique to an individual as a fingerprint. The microbiome is the term used to describe the combined genetic material of the microbiota.
Why is it important?
There is some research to suggest that a healthy and well-balanced digestive system can:
- Impact mood and behavior – It has been comprehensively demonstrated that psychological and physical stressors can affect the composition and metabolic activity of the gut microbiota; but there is increasing evidence that the microbiome can affect emotional behaviour and related brain systems. Research is on-going, but there is an emerging belief that the intestinal microbiota can influence autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.
- Increase longevity – There is increasing evidence that the microbiome may actually be one of the preeminent factors determining your overall longevity.
- Strengthen immunity – The mechanism isn’t fully understood, but there’s plenty of research to suggest that the microbiota plays a role in the initial development of the immune system, starting at birth, as well as the ongoing balance of immune responses.
- Improve nutrient and energy extraction and regulation – Mounting evidence suggests that gut microorganisms also play a crucial role in the harvest, storage and output of energy obtained from what we consume each day. According to researchers at Southern Illinois University, your colon hosts about one billion bacteria per gram of stool. The majority of these bacteria are members of several helpful genera including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. These bacteria help stimulate digestion of food and absorption of nutrients. To some extent, it doesn’t matter how good your diet is, if you don’t have the right balance bacteria in your intestines, you’ll not be able to properly absorb all the nutrients and energy from your good.
How do Probiotics and Prebiotics help maintain a healthy balance in the intestine?
Our bacteria in our gut is sensitive to what we eat and the medications we take. Our diet plays a big part in gut health and can have a significant impact on the microbiome’s balance.
- Prebiotics are the non-digestible component of food that stimulates the growth of the healthy bacteria in the large bowel. One example of a prebiotic is resistant starch – one element of dietary fibre. This provides a food source for good bacteria.
- Probiotics are products that contain good bacteria. They have been shown to enhance immune responses and promote the intestines immunological barrier. The use of probiotics aims at modulation of the immune responses to potentially harmful antigens. They have the potential to down-regulate hypersensitivity reactions.
Together, prebiotics and probiotics work to support and strengthen your intestinal microbiota.
How can we get more probiotics into our diets?
Probiotics come in the version of yoghurts, yoghurt drinks, capsules, and some traditionally fermented foods including kefir (a probiotic milk drink), Sauerkraut (a finely shredded cabbage), Kimchi (a fermented, spicy Korean side dish) and Tempeh (a fermented soybean product). Keep in mind that not all yoghurt contains live probiotics so make sure too look for ones with active or live cultures. Probiotics are also effective in preventing antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
Keep in mind that a healthy diet consists of treats in moderation (chocolate, alcohol and fatty food) and focuses mainly on fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, meat, fish, dairy and some fermented foods such as kefir or sauerkraut to help keep your microbiome happy.
What are some of the benefits of prebiotics and probiotics?
A combination of prebiotics and probiotics can:
- Improve digestion
- Help keep you regular
- Improve production of compounds which aid in protecting the gut from cancer
- Reduce bloating
- Reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety
It may even assist in weight management but this requires further study.
The bottom line: keep your gut healthy and it will look after you. Both prebiotics and probiotics work together to improve your intestinal health and provide other health benefits. Some of the claims above seem far-fetched and unrealistic; however, the above is actually backed up by peer-reviewed scientific research. Remember, it is not just probiotics that help your gut but a healthy lifestyle. If you would like to know more or to investigate any of the information about, you might like to have a look at the following links.