Bacteria are microscopic organisms that can live in the soil, the ocean, and our gut. There are thousands of known types of bacteria. Some cause disease, such as Streptococcus Pneumoniae which causes Pneumonia, and Escherichia Coli which causes food poisoning. There are also many beneficial types of bacteria that serve specific purposes in the body such as helping break down food. At any given time humans carry an average of 2-6 lbs of bacteria in our gut. The gut microbiome is the extensive community of bacteria living in our digestive tract, including those in our esophagus, stomach and intestines. This population of bacteria helps the gut properly function by assisting in digestion, absorption, and overall metabolism. Having great diversity in the types of bacteria in the gut is beneficial, as each type of bacteria serves a different purpose. Your gut has a mind of its own. No, not like an actual brain, but a metaphorical one. The gut’s brain, also called the Enteric Nervous System, consists of over 100 trillion nerve cells that send signals from the gastrointestinal tract to the brain regarding swallowing, release of digestive enzymes, nutrient absorption and elimination. Any disruptions in this gut-brain communication can result in digestive difficulties such as irritable bowel syndrome. While the concept of gut-brain interaction has been linked mainly to digestion and absorption, research is emerging about the protective role of the gut in the development of chronic diseases such as obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and more recently mental health. As one organism dies, a new organism emerges. This is called turnover. Gut bacteria is constantly engaged in turnover. On average, the bacteria in our gut is fully turned over every few months. This means there is ample opportunity for improvement or damage. Lifestyle choices such as poor diet quality can negatively affect the gut, and its associated functions in the body. Despite this constant motion our body is resilient. Studies have shown we can positively impact the gut by way of the diet within about 2-3 days. One powerful dietary tool to enhance gut health is through probiotics.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms which have health benefits associated with their consumption. Consumption of probiotics can help enhance good bacteria in the gut, and prevent inflammation which is caused by bad bacteria. Probiotics have been shown to improve immune function, digestion and metabolism.
What is gut health?
The gut consists of the esophagus, stomach and intestines. Good bacteria which protects us from getting sick, and bad bacteria which cause infection are normally able to live together in the gut in a calm balance. However, disruptions can occur. Diet quality and use of antibiotics play a huge role in determining gut health. Western diets which are high in overly processed foods which tend to contain large amounts of added sugars, saturated fat, and salt which can feed the bad bacteria. They also tend to be low in fiber which feeds beneficial gut bacteria and assists with optimal bowel movements. Consumption of highly processed foods can be one cause of gut disruption. Antibiotics, as suggested by its name, are medications which fight bacterial infections like pneumonia by decreasing overall bacteria in the gut. Antibiotics do not discriminate, and can leave the gut highly depopulated after use. This sudden decline in gut bacteria can leave us feeling wiped out, literally. Think about a highway. It should be smooth to allow cars to pass easily. Imagine our gut as a highway and bacteria as cars. If a highway is not well maintained, it can develop potholes which can prevent cars from efficiently getting through, and produce angry drivers. In the same way, an unhealthy gut causes an upset in the digestive tract and can cause partially digested food and other toxins to slip through the gut into the bloodstream causing inflammation. This inflammation leaves us more susceptible to diseases and can cause us to feel nauseous, bloated, or pained. It is important to listen to your gut. When we begin to feel persistent discomfort associated with digesting food, this can be a sign of an unhappy gut. Too often, upset stomachs go unnoticed. They are attributed to just eating something bad, or overlooked entirely which should not be the case. Symptoms of poor gut health, sometimes referred to as leaky gut include abdominal pain, bloating, loose stools, constipation, heartburn, nausea and vomiting. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, start by examining your diet. One way to increase gut health is by consuming foods rich in probiotics.
What are probiotics’ role in the gut?
While improvements in overall diet quality can have beneficial effects on gut health, the inclusion of probiotic foods can go a long way in repairing an unhappy gut. Probiotics can both repopulate a wiped out gut, and increase good bacteria in the gut to help create a more favorable balance.
Where can I find probiotics?
They are naturally found in fermented foods such as kombucha, yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, cottage cheese, and kimchi, but can also be purchased as supplements. (Check nutrition facts labels to be sure these foods include live active cultures for full benefits.) Try including one food with probiotics each day to feel benefits.
Other strategies to improve gut health include:
- Consuming a balanced diet high in fiber-rich fruits and vegetables
- Inclusion of at least one probiotic food each day
- Getting adequate sleep
- Engaging in exercise each day
- Decreasing stress
If you want to learn more about how you can improve your gut health, talk to a Health Loft dietitian in Chicago, IL (virtually via our telehealth platform or in person) by calling us at (312) 374-5399 or by scheduling an appointment online. For more tips and fun facts to also check out our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages for more articles on nutrition, physical therapy, and exercise!
Submitted by Marissa Gusmao
Edited by Alexander Franz
Reviewed by Morgan Murdock
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