A key element in attaining and preserving a healthy body is having a solid digestive system. Turns out that the foundation of a healthy gut is bugs! The largest collection of bacteria in our bodies is found in the large intestine. Trillions of bacteria live in our gut permanently and they work hard for us everyday. Bacteria help digest and assimilate food in order to provide us with essential nutrients, as well as help our defense system work effectively. Life today is built to exterminate bugs, good and bad, and unfortunately this takes a toll on our digestive tract. Good and bad bacteria live in our digestive system at all times; the goal is to maintain a balance between these bacteria. Additionally, the higher the biodiversity (ie. the more types of bugs that live in our digestive system), the healthier we tend to be. Unfortunately, when our beneficial bacteria get blasted away with sterile food and an antiseptic environment, harmful bacteria take this opportunity to overrun our bodies. This can lead to serious health issues such as inflammation, infection, and chronic disease. To put it in perspective, one dose of antibiotics is all it takes to wipe out enough beneficial bacteria to tip the scales. In fact, it can take up to one year after taking a dose of antibiotics to re-establish your guts’ normal state. Similarly, poor diet (high in certain fats and added sugar), stress and environmental chemicals can have detrimental effects on your friendly bug population. Our gut microbiome is established at birth and doesn’t mature until the age of two and a half years old. Everything from the mode of delivery to whether you were breastfed versus formula fed can have an impact on which bugs live in your large intestine. After your bug population has been fully established, it is constantly being altered by age, diet, health status, geographical location, exposure to antibiotics, and stress.
So how can we keep the balance?
Beneficial bacteria are supported by prudent diet and lifestyle, including consumption of probiotics and prebiotics. Harmful bacteria are stimulated by consuming high fat and high added-sugar diets, eating too much (no matter what foods they are), living a sedentary lifestyle, and abusing antibiotics*.
*Side note on antibiotics: Antibiotics are lifesaving medications that have a role in helping us get better from bacterial infections. There are times when antibiotics are necessary. The above comment is to make you aware of the side effects of taking such drugs and informing you on how to repair the damage that has been inflicted on your gut microbiome.
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that act as “food” for the good bacteria in our gut. Many of these foods come in the form of fibre. Conveniently high fibre foods also make up a large component of a healthy diet, so by eating your fruits and veggies, as well as your high fibre grains, you will likely get all of the prebiotics that the bacteria are craving.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are favourable bacteria that help keep the balance between beneficial and harmful bacteria in the gut, thereby promoting a healthy digestive system. Most of us have heard of getting probiotics from fermented foods. These foods seem to be the new fad in healthy eating, however most of these recipes actually date back for centuries. Fermented foods are embedded in cultural foods and were a means of preservation before the age of refrigerators. Just think of yogurt, kefir, some soft cheeses, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, miso, buttermilk, and tempeh. We are still not sure about the quantities of probiotics we need to consume in order to maintain a healthy digestive tract. However, research suggests that regular, long-term use is necessary. It’s easy and cheap to add 1 or 2 servings of these natural live bacteria into our daily diets and eating them will help the good bacteria survive and multiply in our gut.
Should I take a supplement?
Probiotic supplements are not necessary to be healthy. For the average person, a diet high in fibre, low in added sugar and fat, and with a daily dose of fermented foods should be enough to maintain a happy diverse digestive tract. However, there are exceptional reasons that could cause a supplement to be beneficial. Unfortunately we still don’t know enough to make clear recommendations about which strains and in what quantities probiotic supplements are safe and effective. Additionally, the quality of probiotic products on the market is questionable. Studies show that labeling may be inaccurate and the labels may only indicate the number of organisms at the time of manufacture. Most supplements that have been evaluated have not shown to cause illness, however more studies need to be done on probiotics in young children, the elderly, and people who have a weak immune system. As with any natural health product, you should discuss adding or changing a probiotic supplement with your family physician.
With all that said and done, it all comes down to some basic rules. A diet rich in prebiotics and probiotics can have a huge impact on the efficiency of your digestive tract. By feeding and replenishing these bacteria, you’re well on your way to building a body that can support you through life. Remember that food can be powerful on its own and supplementing is rarely necessary to maintain optimal health.