Did you know that the gastrointestinal tract (also known as ‘the gut’) is the body’s largest sensory organ?
With a huge surface area, the gut consists of mainly smooth muscle and works on an unconscious(involuntary) level. It contains millions of nerves which are different from those found elsewhere in the body and the nerve network in the Gut is as extensive and complex as the nerve network in the brain.
We have many microbes in and on our body of which up to several pounds of them are in the gut and microbiologists have confirmed that we have 10 times as many microbial cells (bacteria, fungi, viruses) in our body as human cells! This means microbes outnumber our own cells by 10 to 1. Therefore 90% of cells within us are microbes.
Humans carry about 3-4 pounds of beneficial bacteria in their digestive tract. Our gut microbiome (the community of bacteria and their genetic material living in the gut) plays a very significant part in human health and wellbeing.
Microbes in our body depend on us for survival and that’s pretty well known. However, its lesser known that we depend on microbes for our survival too and that’s where Probiotics come in….
‘Probiotics’ – what are they?
Probiotics are often referred to as the ‘good’ bacteria which have a role in the maintenance of good health.
They mainly come from 2 families of bacteria called Lactobacillus and Bifodobacteria and play a major role in controlling harmful bacteria.
Probiotics have been around and used for years in different food preparations all over the world such as Sauerkraut, sourdough bread, live yoghurt and crème fraiche.
Currently, probiotics are being sold in tablet form and scientific research is showing how beneficial they can be. Research is proving positive not only on preventing and helping with gastro-intestinal problems but also with boosting immune system, lactose intolerance, weight loss and diabetes.
Probiotics also found naturally occurring in breast milk and are highly beneficial to a new-born baby.
What do probiotics do?
Probiotics maintain a healthy balance of good bacteria to bad bacteria in the gut. They prevent harmful bacteria from taking over and causing gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhoea and intestinal pain. They do this in the following ways:
Consume nutrients which fuel ‘bad’ bacteria leaving the bad bacteria less able to survive.
Bind to ‘receptor sites’ on cells which are usually occupied by bad bacteria so block the bad bacteria from affecting many cells.
They produce lactic acid which inhibits growth of harmful bacteria.
They produce fatty acids (for example Butyrene) which are beneficial for the villi in our intestines. Butyrene reduces inflammation and acts as fuel for the immune cells in the gut so enabling the villi to become stronger. The villi play a major part in absorption of nutrients and when in optimal condition, they can effectively select optimal nutrients and discard harmful ones.
Probiotics – Treatment of illnesses and Health benefits
Treatment of gastrointestinal problems.
Immune system boost – Studies have shown that both the elderly and high-performance athletes are less prone to catching infections such as colds if they take probiotics regularly.
Assist with overcoming obesity.
Inflammatory joint disease
General health and wellbeing – a probiotic daily will suffice although after a course of antibiotics (which wipe out both bad a good bacteria) or during times of high stress, a stronger probiotic will be necessary.
Please note that when taking a probiotic, its best to take for at least a month to feel the benefits. Also, there are specific probiotic bacterium for specific conditions as the genes in probiotic bacteria vary and some are specifically used to treat GI problems whilst others are to boost immunity.
Picture - What are ‘Prebiotics’ and what do they do?
Prebiotics are ‘Probiotic’ fuel.
Therefore, for Prebiotics to have any benefit, probiotics must already be present in the gut. Prebiotics give the ‘good’ bacteria a healthy boost and encourage an increase in the ratio of ‘good’ bacteria to ‘bad’ bacteria.
Some examples of Prebiotics are:
Consumption of Probiotics
Probiotics are found naturally occurring and have been used for many years in foods all over the world such as live yogurt, kefir(which has some amazing health benefits), sourdough bread, crème fraiche and sauerkraut. Consuming probiotics in foods are advantageous as the natural buffering of stomach acid by foods enhances the stability of consumed probiotic.
However, a very potent method of introducing probiotics is by supplementation. Probiotic supplements are now made by culturing the beneficial bacteria in the laboratory then freeze drying the bacteria which is a method used to maintain their efficiency and stability. These freeze-dried bacteria will remain stable for many months without the need for refrigeration. On swallowing, the contact with moisture in the body activates the freeze-dried bacteria back to life.
As mentioned before, it would be advantageous to take supplements with food (which naturally buffers stomach acid) to enhance stability of the probiotic.
Probiotics – The future.
Extensive research is currently being carried out on probiotics and illnesses correlated with our gut microbiome include allergies, asthma, weight problems, infections, inflammation, lactose intolerance as well as the usual gastrointestinal problems.
Recent studies have also linked our gut microbiome balance to depression and much research is still being carried out on this. It is now known that the health of the gut can have a direct effect on our brain and an earlier study in 2013 found that humans taking a cocktail of bacteria for 4 weeks were found to have alterations in the areas of the brain processing both emotions and pain. It also been shown that IBS sufferers have above average occurrences of anxiety and depression. Research has been ongoing since these studies and there is much evidence to suggest that diet including probiotics affect mental and emotional states.
Managing Microbiome balance is on the cutting edge of scientific research and who knows what treatment will become available from this in future years. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to take care of your own gut microbiome by eating healthily and ensuring some intake of probiotic in the form of either food or supplement in particular during times of stress or following a course of antibiotics.
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