A New Understanding of Probiotics
Many people have heard of probiotics, but many don’t realize their importance for our health. One of the major advances in human biology of recent years has been the linking of the gut environment with the immune system. In contrast to the more traditionalist view of taking care of one’s body, scientists now believe that maintaining the health of your gut may even surpass the importance of multivitamins. The name vitamin was given to what were thought to be the most vital of nutritional compounds, without which the body would not function. Although it cannot be disputed that these vitamins are truly vital, they do not cater for all of the body’s needs – after all, the body is incredibly complex. The process of growing and developing begins with the air we breathe, and the food and drink we put into our digestive system to be broken down and absorbed.
Why should we pay attention to probiotics?
With the prevalence of digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis, it is about time we started to pay more attention to what is going on in our guts. A rapidly growing body of research has illuminated the path to solving many bowel and digestion-related problems, ranging from gas and bloating to colon cancer. The shift in understanding from the digestive tract being essentially outside of the body, to the appreciation of how vital the various organisms are that inhabit it, has led to scientists naming the gut the newest organ of the body. Without these bacteria, or ‘normal flora‘ helping us to digest and to absorb food, as well as to stave of infection and malignant organisms, we would be unable to survive. Therefore looking after these ‘good’ bacteria is highly important. Today, there are many probiotic supplements to choose from.
Where do the bacteria in our gut come from?
Bacteria enter the gut around the time of birth. As we develop, a wider variety of organisms, or probiotic bacteria populate the gut and usually some sort of balance is reached. There are various factors affecting how beneficial a population is established. They come from the mother during the act of birth and during breastfeeding, although many breastfeeding mothers now take additional probiotic supplements to ensure healthy development. Probiotics are not only linked with healthy digestion. These bacteria live in symbiosis with the body, communicating with our cells and influencing bodily processes. In this way, they are thought to influence gene expression in infants (which genes are ‘switched’ on or off), and so they play a crucial role in babies’ development. Affected genes that have been discovered so far are involved in learning, memory and motor (movement) development. With such an influential role at such a critical time of development, it is no surprise that an insufficient or imbalanced gut population may increase the risk of various immune, psychiatric and bowel-related disorders.
Link to Diabetes
Diabetes is a growing problem, yet we still do not understand it completely and this makes coming up with effective treatments difficult. Without knowing the root causes of a disease, existing treatments often are ineffective. Now researchers have discovered differences in the makeup of gut populations between those of healthy individuals and those suffering from diabetes. Critically, these researchers have also shown that certain bacteria are linked to altered gene expression in diabetic patients and that these genes are involved in glucose tolerance. This means that a poor bacterial balance in the gut may have led to reduced glucose tolerance by changing gene expression; this poses an interesting new and safe line of treatment for diabetes, and in particular type II diabetes.
Autism and Bacterial Imbalance
Scientists have now successfully debunked the link between autism and infant immunizations. However, there may yet be a link between autism and the immune system. As we have already seen, the developing brain is under significant influence of the bacteria that begin to populate the gut during the months around birth. The developing brain takes cues from things like gene expression, hormones and other signaling molecules that tell a cell what it is going to become, and where it is going to go within the brain. Of course this is a delicate process, and most mothers will minimize the physical and psychiatric risk to their child by, for example, not hanging around in smoky environments, and minimizing their alcohol intake. Now, the importance of the gut environment is increasingly being appreciated. Mothers that eat well, get plenty of exercise and take probiotics may well be bestowing a much lower risk of child psychiatric problems such as autism and ADHD onto their children. What’s more, as children develop it remains important to ensure that their digestive tract is healthy to ensure proper brain development.
The Immunity Link
Although many of us are aware that the gut has a link to the immune system, the extent of this link is not entirely clear. That a wayward gut environment may be a causal factor in such serious conditions as multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease indicates the strength of this link. Considering first multiple sclerosis, it is already known that it is a complex immune disease of unknown cause. Symptoms include a gradual loss of motor function that can vary from a matter of months to years, and this is caused by a gradual loss of the insulating fat around nerve fibers in the brain. Without this insulation, electrical signals in the brain cannot travel over long distances (much like the plastic insulation around an electrical cable), and mobility is gradually lost as a result. There are many putative causes, such as infection, food intolerance, vaccination and genetic risks. Experiments using mice that have an analogous ‘mouse version’ of multiple sclerosis, show that the gut environment can trigger symptoms of the disease. This interesting result has prompted researchers to start investigating the gut environment of humans, comparing those with multiple sclerosis to those without. It is hoped that by identifying a link between microorganism imbalance in the gut and an inflammatory immune response, a way of stemming the damage to neurons and neuronal myelin can be found.
When the microflora of the gut is imbalanced, many negative effects can occur. This can mean that the gut population has been dominated by ‘bad’ bacteria, i.e. those bacterial species that have a negative effect on digestion and immune function. It could also mean that although the gut is dominated by good bacteria, their numbers are too low to be exerting their positive effects and this can occur after, for example, a course of antibiotics. Repopulating the gut environment with the correct bacteria is not a trivial task; however there are now a range of options available to ensure that your digestive tract is in the best of health. In addition to a potent, good quality probiotic supplement, the most recent development is fecal transplantation.
The principle of fecal transplantation is for healthy fecal matter to be donated via colonoscopy to an unhealthy digestive tract. Not only does it rapidly repopulate the gut with healthy microorganisms, but is has been shown by Dr Mark Mellow and his associates in Oklahoma City that fecal transplantation is effective in treating serious bacterial infections, such as Clostridium difficile (C.difficile to you or me), where more conventional treatment has failed. This treatment has also shown encouraging results in the treatment of Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and insulin sensitivity in obese patients. The difference in gut flora between healthy and obese individuals is a fascinating and innovative new line of research into this latest global epidemic.
Lifestyle Adaptations to Prevent Digestive Imbalance
We all know that eating healthy whole foods and taking plenty of exercise are great for our bodies. The sensitivity of our digestive systems to not only our overall health, but also to the chemicals we expose ourselves to, should be a consideration when we take a trip to the drug store or the grocery store. Environmental chemicals, such as exhaust fumes, are difficult to avoid when you live in a town or city; however there are many chemicals that we use as part of our daily lives such as antibacterial soaps and the chemicals found in many non-organic foods (and even to some degree in organic foods) that are used for agricultural purposes. The irony of antibacterial soap is that you may actually be doing more harm than good; by switching to a natural soap you can reduce your chemical exposure. Chlorinated water is known to have an antibiotic effect, and so filtering your water might be worth considering.
We have mentioned the importance of diet in maintaining a healthy gut, and any fermented food will encourage the right sorts of microorganisms for digestion. For these fermented foods to have any effect, they must not be pasteurized or heated to high temperatures before consuming because this process would destroy the probiotics contained within them. The term ‘fermented foods’ covers a wide range of food types and indeed cultures. Yoghurt, perhaps the most commonly consumed fermented product in the US, is readily available in drug stores – you must check the label to ensure that is still contains live cultures; these will often be listed in the ingredients. Fermented soy like natto, and fermented fruit and vegetables such as sauerkraut, are all teeming with probiotic life.
In addition to these lifestyle habits, you can provide additional digestive support by taking a probiotic supplement. It is important to find one that is not only potent, but that has some kind of mechanism for being released into your intestine, thereby bypassing the acidic conditions of the stomach. Unless the bacteria can be protected from stomach and bile acids, they will simple perish before they have had the chance to colonize the small intestine. Although taking a probiotic supplement will have limited effect if you have a particularly unhealthy lifestyle, it can provide extra fortification for the digestive and immune systems, not only helping to prevent you falling prey to illness but also speeding your recovery.