Gut Check — Part 1

11 Jan

This series of articles is dedicated to the discussion of your gut flora and the significance that it plays in your overall, digestive, and immune health. We are learning more and more every day about the significance of the bacterial population of your gut. This series will help pronounce that importance and inform you how you can build the optimal city that is your own gut.

Russian Scientist Elie Metchnikoff is considered the inventor of probiotics. He theorized that aging was the result of the build-up of unhealthy bacteria in the gut. As a result, he consumed sour (fermented) milk daily. He ended up living until he was 71, which at the turn of the 20th century when he passed exceeded life expectancy levels. Surely he was on to something!

Indeed he was. While the gut is typically thought of as a digestion center, it is far more. As a matter of fact, the 25-foot long GI tract — which by definition starts at the mouth and ends at the colon — is colloquially termed the “second brain.” The gut literally has its own nervous system (i.e., the enteric nervous system) that extends well beyond digestion affecting everything from our mood to our health and well-being.

In addition, the gut is home to 80% of our immune system. Let’s put it this way. Our bodies are made up of approximately 10 trillion cells. That’s a lot. Now, multiply that number by 10. No need for a calculator — the answer is 100 trillion.

That’s the number of living bacteria that you have living inside of your gut. That’s right, 100 trillion bacteria in that 25-foot long digestive system of yours. Pretty impressive stuff, huh?

Well, more important than the number of the bacteria is the balance of the bacterial ecosystem. That is, we have both “good” and “bad” bacteria that populate our gut flora. Think of “gut flora” as a city in our GI tracts, and the bacteria are the inhabitants that make up the population.

The term probiotic stems from the Latin words “pro” (before, forward) and “bios” (life). Thus, probiotic means life-promoting. In this case, “good” bacteria are also known as probiotics.

To understand why probiotics are important, we first need to understand how valuable beneficial bacteria are to our health, and how prevalent they are in our bodies.

What do gut bacteria do?

In our gut, good bacteria can displace bad bacteria and influence our overall health, metabolism, digestion, and body composition. Gut bacteria are involved in immunity and help to ensure our immune system doesn’t have an itchy trigger finger (think food sensitivities).

Gut bacteria also:

  • Help synthesize B and K vitamins
  • Enhance gastrointestinal motility and function
  • Enhance digestion and nutrient absorption
  • Obstruct the growth of “bad bacteria” and other pathogens
  • Help metabolize other plant compounds/drugs
  • Produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and polyamines
  • Produce coagulation and growth factors
  • Produce cytokines (cell signaling molecules)
  • Help regulate intestinal mucus secretion and utilization
  • Help regulate blood flow to the viscera

Adequate consumption of probiotics can help to eliminate abdominal pain, gas, bloating, reflux, allergies, nausea, food poisoning and vomiting. Probiotics may even alleviate irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and dermatitis. You guessed it – this means they are anti-inflammatory.

The ideal ratio of “good” to “bad” bacteria is 85% to 15% or 9 to 1, respectively. Unfortunately, due to lifestyle and environmental factors, the vast majority of the population is severely lacking when it comes to good probiotic bacteria, throwing their gut flora ratio completely out of whack.

These lifestyle and environmental factors include, but are not limited to, exposure to:

  • Sugar
  • Artificial sweeteners/ingredients of any kind
  • Processed foods
  • Chlorinated water
  • Antibacterial hand soap
  • Pollution
  • Agricultural chemicals and pesticides, and…
  • Antibiotics (from medications and/or antibiotics found in meat and dairy products that we ingest).

As you may have guessed by now, gut health and the proper ratio of bacteria in the gut flora are extremely important for overall health and play a critical role in immune function, prevention of many diseases, and optimizing body composition.

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