Probiotics seem to be all the rage these days with hundreds of different products exploding from drug store shelves. But to understand what probiotics are and how they can help your digestion, you need to understand a little bit about a pretty special organ: the gut! Along with the gut, some knowledge of the “friendly” bacteria residing in the gut– otherwise known as the microbiome!
The human gut (or gastrointestinal tract) is a truly extraordinary organ. Not only does it play an integral role in the digestion and absorption of food, the gut is also our body’s most important regulator of the immune system.
More than 60 percent of immune cells are located in the gut. In fact, the gut’s immune system is often referred to as gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) and is home to the largest portion of lymphoid tissue in the entire body! This means that this mucosal layer contains immune cells like T and B lymphocytes that protect and defend the body from invading pathogens.
What’s more, the gut hosts approximately 100 trillion bacteria cells, most of which are located in the colon (the large intestine). In fact, we have more bacteria in our intestines than we do cells in our bodies! Together, these bacteria comprise the microbiome, a distinct “community” of microorganisms that differs from person to person. In this way, everyone’s microbiome is completely unique.
Your body’s relationship with your colonic bacteria, or gut flora, is really a symbiotic one (i.e., mutually beneficial!). Under normal circumstances, these commensal bacteria don’t want to hurt you, and you definitely shouldn’t want to hurt them.. All the “good” bacteria want is a comfortable habitat and food from you. In exchange, they provide you with protection and defense.
Your gut flora cares for you in many ways:
- It strengthens the immune system
- Competes with pathogenic “bad” bacteria
- Creates an uninhabitable environment for pathogens by altering your gut’s pH
- Fortifies your intestinal wall so that it blocks harmful substances from entering
- Decreases oxidative stress
- Lowers inflammation
By exerting all of these effects and more, the gut flora (or microbiome) has been shown to play a role in managing intestinal health, heart health, diabetes, obesity, autism, mood disorders and a number of autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel disease.
Like a fingerprint, everyone’s intestinal bacteria are different. Furthermore, the microbiome is subject to change! There are many factors that influence the bacterial profile of the gut, including: age, stress, infections, poor hygiene, alcohol, antibiotics, smoking, food, and vaginal delivery versus cesarean section.
Many people try to promote better gut health by using off-the-shelf probiotics, which are ingestible live bacteria that are meant to enhance the health of the GI tract. However, choosing the right probiotic can be challenging and overwhelming without professional advice. Make an appointment with a gastroenterologist or GI nutritionist to discuss the best probiotics for you.
In the meantime, you can strengthen and improve your gut flora—without a probiotic!—by simply following these easy tips:
- Add more fermented foods (i.e. probiotics) to your diet (try kimchee, kombucha, sauerkraut…)
- Get enough sleep! Studies show there is a powerful interplay between the mind and the gut.
- Limit your intake of sugar and alcohol, as these substances can negatively alter your gut flora.
Note: PLEASE consult with your doctor before making any changes to your diet or medications. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only, and is not to be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.