Our intestines are teeming with huge living communities of intestinal flora. In fact, there are 100 trillion bacteria in our digestive tract, including over 400 species containing both beneficial bacteria and pathogenic strains. Overall this equates to about four pounds of these microorganisms in a given healthy adult.
Most these bacteria are “good” and offer multitudes of health benefits. They are essential to the proper functioning of not only our digestion, but our overall well-being. But the key to good health is not only the bacteria themselves, but the ratio between the good and pathogenic strains.
The beneficial bacteria, otherwise known as probiotics, provide many things to our bodies. For example, they assist with the digestion of lactose in milk, filter toxins, absorb nutrients from minerals such as calcium, copper, iron and magnesium and increase overall immunity. They also help to synthesize some B vitamins such as folic acid, vitamins B3, B5, B6, B12 Biotin and Vitamin K. But most importantly, they crowd out the hostile bacteria by taking up prime real estate in the gut.
In healthy individuals the intestinal flora will remain moderately consistent through their lifetimes. The ratio will be approximately 85 per cent good to 15 per cent bad bacteria.
But things such as drugs – especially antibiotics – undue stress, aging, poor food choices, sugar, alcohol or caffeine can upset the optimal balance of the different bacteria causing an unhealthy condition termed dysbiosis. This state allows the pathogenic bacteria such as E coli, or the yeast Candida albicans to further colonize, thereby contributing to many health concerns including poor digestion, hormone imbalances, yeast infections, lowered immunity and less nutrient absorption as well as illness due to food poisoning.
Due to most people’s hectic lifestyles, probiotics need to be replenished on a daily basis to maintain our optimal balance.
Two of the most common and well researched colonizing strains are the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species. Acidophilus is one of the most important strains of lactobacilli in the intestinal tract. It is very stable and also produces substances that displace or inhibit potentially harmful fungus such as Candida albicans or staphylococcus.
These beneficial strains and others can be taken through supplements or found in fermented and cultured foods such as cheeses, kefir, tempeh, tofu, sauerkraut, Sicilian green olives, vinegar-free pickled carrots or cucumbers, sourdough, kombucha, miso and some yogurts.
But be cautious when purchasing yogurt. There are many well marketed, big brand names that claim to contain large numbers of probiotics. But often these bacteria are non-colonizing strains that are less effective in the gut.
Some brands may also contain huge amounts of refined sugar that feed the harmful bacteria. If you choose yogurt, buy unsweetened and check with the manufacturer to see if the product contains live colonizing bacteria.
Although it is best to get our probiotics from food, a supplement can also provide some needed friendly bacteria. A daily preventative dose for a healthy adult is a minimum of 1 billion CFUs daily. Most good brands of probiotics will provide a guarantee of both quantity and viability of bacteria including an expiry date. There are also probiotic products available that are age appropriate and manufactured to contain bacteria strains that help with specific ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome etc.
If taking any drugs – especially antibiotics – supplementation with probiotics is essential. The recommended quantity is 10 billion live bacteria daily, taken four to six hours after an antibiotic dose. This will assist in replenishing the good bacteria killed by the antibiotics. An excellent brand for antibiotic use is the well-researched Bio-K formula. It guarantees a minimum of live bacteria up until the expiry date and is also offered in non-dairy formulas.
Prebiotics such as Inulin, fructooligosacharides (FOS) and arabinogalactans help to maintain and stimulate the growth of our beneficial intestinal flora. These saccharides or sugar molecules nourish the bacteria and improve the overall mineral absorption in the gut. Some individuals may get a little bloated from FOS, but it is not harmful. Foods high in prebiotics include artichokes, bananas, garlic, honey, onions, peas, eggplant, asparagus, soybeans, legumes and whole grains. To keep the probiotics thriving, aim for two to four servings of these foods daily.
As with everything in life, it all comes down to balance. To maintain a healthy ratio of bacteria in the gut, our lifestyle and diet choices make a big difference. We can help to support our beneficial flora and ensure better health by including lots of fresh produce, unrefined whole foods and pure water, while indulging in less alcohol, caffeine, refined sugars and processed foods.