The probiotic revolution

June 30 2015

The bacteria that dominate your gut are thought to be one of the major influences on your health. Honor Tremain points to the probiotic foods that ensure we have the right gut microbes to reduce inflammation, boost brain function and fight obesity. 

Our entire body is made up of a community of 100 trillion cells. Astonishingly, only 10 trillion are human. The remaining 90 trillion are all bacteria. They reside in our intestines, our very own “gut flora.” Many of these bacteria are vital to our health, but some can harm us. There are between 500 and 1,000 different strains of varying species of bacteria, both good and bad.

Good gut bacteria

Yoghurt

The most common benefit of good gut bacteria is that they improve digestion and help us absorb nutrients. However, they also protect the gut — and the rest of the body — from disease-causing bad bacteria, fungi and parasites. These little guys are largely responsible for our immune system and work hard to boost our immunities. They also assist carbohydrate and fat digestion, and synthesise the vitamins B and K.

Most strikingly, recent research has discovered that probiotics can work on the mind, relieving symptoms of depression, anxiety, mood disorders, schizophrenia, ADHD and autism. Who would have thought the humble bacterium was so helpful?

It turns out that the same bacteria can reside in us for decades, passing on to our children and setting up home in their gut, too.

Neurologist Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride explains that a mother’s gut bacteria transfers to the child during delivery. The child’s gut bacteria are acquired along the journey through the birth canal, where the bacteria is swallowed by the baby as it is arriving into the world, establishing his or her first gut flora.

Bad gut bacteria

Maintaining our good gut bacteria is a delicate operation as bad gut bacteria can thrive so easily thanks to our modern lifestyle, and become dominant. Factors such as antibiotic use, illness, medication and a poor diet high in sugar, fructose and bad fats all feed bad bacteria.

Bad gut bacteria is responsible for tummy bugs, poor digestion, symptoms of IBS, low immunity, mood disorders, candida, skin conditions, asthma, food allergies, coeliac disease, increased risk of cancer — the list goes on, making it more important than ever to keep the good gut bacteria in control.

Lactobacillus

But is there even such a thing as the perfect gut? Some experts believe that the perfect gut balance is 85% good bacteria, 15% bad bacteria. But dietician and nutritionists say there’s no such thing as a “perfect gut.” The gastrointestinal tract (GIT) of each individual is incredibly unique, just like a fingerprint.

Throughout our lives the balance of bacteria and other microorganisms alter based on numerous factors, including genetics, lifestyle, diet, environment and age. Two individuals may have a very different bacterial profile within their GIT, and yet, despite their differences, each are healthy.

There is still a great deal to learn about the function and role of the bacterial colonies living within our bodies, however, there are some common factors that appear to be beneficial.

A gut that is alive with many “beneficial microbes” (such as the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species) is healthier than a more “sterile” gut, devoid of bacteria. Studies have shown that beneficial organisms can dwindle for reasons such as poor diet, use of certain medications and bad lifestyle habits. It has been found that in certain disease states, the balance of bacteria within the gut is very different when compared to a healthy individual’s.

A diet rich in prebiotic fibre is essential to feed and maintain numbers of beneficial microorganisms within the GIT. We can get closer to achieving the perfect gut by either regularly eating probiotic rich, fermented foods such as those listed here, or taking a supplement to keep the good gut bacteria on top.

Probiotic-rich foods Miso-Soup

  • Yoghurt: A fermented live-culture dairy based food. High in acidophilus and bifidus bacteria.
  • Kefir: Similar to yoghurt but made of a combination of goat’s milk and fermented kefir grains. Rich in bifidus and lactobacilli bacteria.
  • Sauerkraut: A European garnish usually made from fermented cabbage leaves, it’s rich in vitamins and minerals as well as good bacteria.
  • Microalgae: The green superfoods — spirulina and chlorella, which contain probiotics and prebiotics, feeding the good bacteria so they thrive.
  • Miso soup: A Japanese soup, made from fermented rye, rice, beans and barley. Rich in bifidus bacteria and lactobacilli.
  • Tempeh: An Indonesian soy cake made from fermented whole soybeans. It’s high in probiotics and used as a tasty meat substitute worldwide.
  • Kombucha Tea: A fermented tea full of probiotics and said to increase energy and help weight loss.

Tempeh

Supplements

There are various supplements which aim to boost good gut bacteria.

Good gut bacteria strains

There are some strains of gut bacteria that are better suited to doing specific tasks than others. Here are the five most popular strains of gut bacteria and what they help our bodies do:

  1. Lactobacillus Acidophilus: Acidophilus is the most commonly used bacterium, found in yoghurt and cheese as well as many supplements. It can help with food digestion, an upset tummy after a course of antibiotics and rebalancing the good guys.
  2. Lactobacillus Gasseri: In a 2010 Japanese study, 87 overweight participants took either a gasseri probiotic or a placebo. After 12 weeks, the probiotic group had reduced abdominal fat by 4.6 percent and subcutaneous fat by 3.3 percent.
  3. Bifidobacteria Infantis: A study published in 2008 in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that bifidobacteria infantis acted similarly to an antidepressant, altering tryptophan metabolism and increasing the production of the serotonin.
  4. Lactobacillus Rhamnosus: Used widely in the treatment of skin disorders, one study found it could reduce the skin condition eczema by 50 percent in infants, while also helping asthma. A study published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry found that this particular strain of bacteria also decreased alcohol induced liver damage.
  5. Saccharomyces Boulardii: This probiotic yeast increases the body’s production of secretory IgA, an immunodefense secretion found in saliva, gastric juices and mucus membranes. In our gut, this also helps form a protective barrier against bad bacteria and can lessen thrush and candiditis significantly.

In the end, it seems we’re just a shell, housing a galaxy of complex, battling microorganisms who far outnumber our own cells nine to one. Some are good and some are bad. We can help by supporting the good guys with the right reinforcements.