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Over the course of evolution, humans and bacteria have developed a close, symbiotic relationship. Internal flora — our microbiota — perform numerous tasks that affect digestion, immunity, metabolism, even mental health. Life would be quite difficult, perhaps impossible, without them.
To get a sense of this colonization’s magnitude, consider that bacteria outnumber human cells by 10 to one. In fact, it’s estimated that 99 percent of the DNA in our bodies belongs to bacteria. They have been hiding in plain sight for eons; but, finally, scientists are getting a better understanding on their role in human biology.
This is leading to some amazing discoveries and startling therapies that are not for the faint of heart. For example, fecal transplants into the digestive tract of someone with intestinal disease are now used to treat drug-resistant microbes, restoring the internal balance that keeps pathogens at bay. Similar treatments are helping people recover from metabolic syndrome, a precursor to type 2 diabetes. This is just the beginning. There’s no telling how many new types of treatments will evolve from our new understanding of beneficial bacteria.
Researchers are finding that good health may depend on various bacterial species finding an ideal balance. Common practices, such as overusing antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, can disrupt flora. Chemicals in processed foods may also have a negative effect, along with chronic infections. These disruptions could be the root causes driving recent increases in autoimmune disorders, allergies, obesity and many other conditions.
A recent study examined the microbiota in heart disease patients and found distinct differences between their bacteria and those in the healthy control group. The researchers were particularly interested in bacteria from healthy people that produced carotenoids, a powerful group of antioxidants.
Another study showed that probiotics can help patients undergoing intense chemotherapy. These treatments are particularly hard on the intestines, but specific bacteria can help the body regenerate intestinal cells and even determine the effectiveness of certain chemotherapy drugs.
Yet another study found that bacteria can increase bone density. And other research has found that certain bacteria can help people lose visceral fat, the most dangerous variety.
The list of benefits goes on. Probiotics can help prevent diarrhea, bowel inflammation and digestive tract infections. It’s quite possible that, in the near future, we will get a probiotic prescription to treat irritable bowel syndrome, colds, eczema, Crohn’s disease and even cancer.
Adding Good Bacteria
In the meantime, there are a number of probiotic foods that are rich in good bacteria. Fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchee, are particularly useful. Yogurt has Lactobacillus acidophilus, a bacteria that helps us digest dairy. These foods also contain digestive enzymes and have been shown to improve nutrient absorption.
There are quite a few probiotic supplements on the market, but it’s important to get the right bacteria. In particular, look for Lactobacillus GG and Saccharomyces boulardii, which help prevent infections and diarrhea. Other beneficial bacteria include Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus casei and Bifidobacteria.
Of course, bacteria are living organisms, which means they have to eat. One way to enhance beneficial flora is to provide nutrition for them, in the form of prebiotics. By giving bacteria the food they like, we help them grow and maintain their balance in our digestive tract. Good prebiotic foods are Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onions, chicory root, dandelion greens and bananas.
In fact, fascinating research suggests that the foods we eat might have the greatest impact on our individual microbiota. For example, traditional cultures that eat fewer processed foods show increased diversity in their beneficial gut bacteria. One study looked at the microbiota of children from rural Africa who ate a high-fiber diet, compared with children from a region in Italy who ate a modern Western diet. The African children had significantly higher levels of beneficial bacteria that produce essential short-chain fatty acids, which play key roles in intestinal and overall health. The European children had higher levels of a bacteria type in the Firmicutes phyla, which may predispose someone to obesity. Other studies have shown that changes in diet (for example switching from a high-fat, high-protein diet to a lower-fat, high-fiber diet) can induce changes in gut microbiota within days.
While still in the early stages of research, what’s important about these studies is that they suggest that the foods we eat can have a much broader impact on health than previously believed. We may be able to create healthier microbiome communities within the body by shifting our diets, and healthy carbohydrates and fibers appear to play an important role.
Supporting Overall Digestive Health
Beyond probiotics and prebiotics, there are a number of traditional herbs that benefit digestion and can support healthier microbiota. Pomegranate seed, pepper fruit, ginger and lesser galangal root support circulation, strengthen digestion, eliminate gas and reduce acid.
I also recommend the minerals chromium and zinc, which strengthen the digestive tract and modulate inflammation. In addition, there are a variety of digestive enzymes that help us break down proteins, carbohydrates and fats: amylase, alpha galactosidase, protease, phytase, invertase and lipase.
These and other ingredients can all be found in an integrative digestive formula, which supports healthy digestion, alleviates heartburn and gas and can reduce nausea and bloating.
Without a doubt, a healthy gut microbiome can influence health in ways we’re only just beginning to understand. From respiratory health, immunity and vital energy to brain and neurological protection, weight control and much more, these helpful bacteria area a truly unique asset to our overall wellness and quality of life.
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