Within our digestive system there lives 10 times the amount of tiny organisms than we have cells in the body – see graphic, on average a whacking great 2 kilos of them! Science is still discovering the staggeringly complex and miraculous functions these 10 trillion and over 400 species of organism perform in order to keep us healthy. They communicate with each other and keep each other in check to ensure the balance remains at its optimum – that is, when all is going well. However, these days we are throwing the delicate balance of this highly complex system out of whack due to poor dietary and lifestyle practices. This has a direct impact on your ability to breakdown and absorb nutrients in the food you eat; on your immune function; on your mood, as the vast majority of serotonin – the ‘feel-good’ brain chemical, is made in the gut; on our ability to stay at a healthy weight and our detoxification processes.
Many people have some awareness of probiotics, commonly thought of as ‘good bacteria’ or healthy ‘gut flora’ that live inside us and help keep our digestion working well. As a nutritional therapist I have been recommending the supplementation of probiotics for all my patients following anti-biotic treatment (antibiotic meaning anti bacterial, pro biotic meaning for, or pro bacteria) for many years.
When antibiotics are taken, the healthy bacteria that live inside us get dramatically depleted. Once this happens, undesirable pathogens that also live in the gut – fungi, parasites and harmful bacterium, normally kept under control by the good stuff, take the opportunity to rapidly multiply and spread while the number of good guys are down.This can lead to a whole host of ailments, some long term, such as allergies, low resistance to disease, malnutrition and lots of inflammatory conditions. So clearly, keeping your gut flora well balanced and healthy is absolutely fundamental to being well.
However, new research is showing that many other factors deplete the healthy gut flora: stress – a major factor; most medications, including the contraceptive pill (a steroid); meat from intensively reared animals and non-organic milk as antibiotics in animal feed pass in to the food chain; preservatives and additives in our food; alcohol and most recreational drugs. This relentless attack on the gut flora results in most people having a depleted range and number of these healthy organisms and if they are not ‘topped up’ on a regular basis, chronic illness will eventually occur.
When I first began to see recommendations that everyone, not just the sick and those on antibiotics should take regular doses of probtioics I thought this must be a bit of a marketing scam, but now I’ve researched further, it makes a lot of sense: before we had refrigeration to keep our food fresh, people preserved their food through fermentation and curing: pickling vegetables (see earlier post on sauerkraut), souring milk to make yogurt and fermenting it to make cheese, preserving meats and using fermenting starter cultures to make bread i.e. sour dough, all results in the development of beneficial bacterium. Therefore, our forefathers were constantly adding to their gut flora by consuming these foods.
Few people eat traditionally ferment foods these days, with industrial processes and pasteurization killing off the good bacteria. Even live yogurt, known to contain the ‘good’ bacteria, contains tiny amounts and only one or two strains of bacteria as the milk it is made from has been pasteurized, killing off most of the good stuff. Coupled with the greatly increased level of toxicity we are exposed to, our poor guts are really struggling.
So, in order to keep your immune system working well (over 80% of our immune cells are manufactured within the gut by the gut flora), to keep depression at bay, to avoid allergies developing and to ensure you break down your food in to the tiny particles required for full and proper digestion, you need to give your gut flora a regular helping hand – especially at a time like this when there are loads of bugs about and most people are drinking and eating to excess. Bear in mind, eating really healthy food and taking supplements is a waste of time and money if your body cannot break down and absorb the nutrients.
How to do it? Well, making your own sauerkraut or regularly consuming raw, unpasteurized commercial fermented veg is one way. Making your own yogurt from raw milk is another, but to really top up and substantially support the gut flora, I recommend that every few months you take some high strength, multi-strain probiotic capsules for a 7 – 10 days. You want to look carefully at what you are buying: the label needs to specify that the bacteria contained has been specially treated to withstand the powerful stomach acid, otherwise most of the bacteria will get destroyed before they reach your intestine where they are needed; you want each capsule to contain at least 10 billion and ideally at least 5 different strains. Although most labels these days will say that they do not need refrigeration, it is always worth doing so if you can to limit die-off – remember, you are buying live bacteria! Also, many will say, take with food. The latest research suggests it is better to take on an empty stomach when stomach acid is at its lowest, ideally take just before bedtime, assuming you have not eaten for 3 hours, or very first thing in the morning with lots of water and then wait 20 minutes before eating.
Children really benefit from taking probiotics too. Open up a capsules and sprinkle on food or in a drink to get some in to them.
I am sure we will be hearing a lot more about probiotics in the next few years. Get going on them now to reap the benefits. If you would like some specific guidance of which probiotics to take, then contact me through my website.
Here’s to a very happy and healthy 2013 and to all those lovely little bugs living inside us! 🙂