Have you ever thought about how your body bugs – that’s your good and bad bacteria, may be causing your digestive symptoms like constant bloating, irregular bowel movements, stomach cramps or symptoms like fatigue, constant colds or even problems with shifting those few extra pounds of weight.
- We have around 500 species of bacteria that live in our gastrointestinal (GI) tract, that is 3 metres long, and make up the “gut flora”
- In the average adult the bacteria weigh about 1kg
- We have 10 times more bacteria in the body than human cells
Like everything in life it is all about balance. We need the right balance of good and bad bacteria in our GI tract for good health.
These good bacteria are often referred to as friendly bacteria, intestinal flora, gut flora or probiotics, and mostly have names beginning with ‘Lactobacillus’ or ‘Bifidobacteria’. You probably already know that these are found in yoghurts as the food companies tend to highlight this in their marketing campaigns, but they are also found in a number of other foods which I have listed below.
Where do these trillions of bacteria come from?
Up until birth, we receive pre-digested foods from our mothers and are born with a sterile digestive tract. The trip down the birth canal initiates us into the world of microbes that thrive everywhere. Babies are exposed to bacteria in breast milk and formula and when sucking on nipples, fingers and toes. Within a week of birth, bifidobacteria and other strains of good bacteria are established in bottle fed babies. Breast-fed infants have increased numbers of lactobacillus and bifidobacteria strains.
Why do we need friendly/good bacteria?
These friendly bacteria have lots and lots of different functions. I have listed their main benefits below, but there are many more. We’re still learning with new research coming out every year on their health benefits.
They help to
- Produce B vitamins (energy)
- Produce Vitamin K (blood clotting, bone health)
- Strengthen our immune system to help fight infection
- Lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacteria increase the absorption of minerals that need acid for absorption, such as calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, and manganese.
- Digest lactose and dairy products
- Regulate peristalsis (helps to move food down our GI tract) and bowel movements
- Prevent vaginal and urinary tract infections
- Prevent production and absorption of toxins produced by disease-causing bacteria, which reduces the toxic load of the liver.
Why do they become imbalanced?
The bad bacteria in your body will start to outweigh the good bacteria if you have a history of one or more of the following:
- Antibiotic usage
- Alcohol – consumed in large amounts
- Constant high levels of stress
- Poor diet
Also there are theories that say that spending less time outdoors in nature means we are not exposed to the multitude of bacteria in our environment that help to strengthen our immune system. And there is the ‘Hygiene’ hypothesis which refers to the fact that we now live in environments that are too clean & hygienic. We need a certain amount of bad bacteria to strengthen our immunity.
During a consultation with a Nutritional Therapist, a full review of your health history, current health symptoms, diet and lifestyle is done to help identify if an imbalance in your gut bacteria is causing your health symptoms. A comprehensive stool analysis may also be recommended depending on the extent of your health problems.
Comprehensive Stool Analysis Test
Here is an example of a stool test result from a client of mine who had very low levels of good bacteria (beneficial flora). She had zero levels of bifidobacterium and lactobacillus strains, when they should be 3+. The test also checked for yeast infections and parasites for which she was clear. By changing her diet and boosting her good bacteria with a good quality probiotic for a set period of time her digestion improved and her energy levels returned to normal.
Nutrition recommendations for healthy gut flora
Avoiding processed foods and foods high in added sugar is the first starting point as sugar feeds bad bacteria, yeasts and fungi causing them to increase. So if you are having constant sugar cravings, this is an area to investigate. Prebiotics work with probiotics and studies have found that prebiotics stimulate the growth of good bacteria, such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, while promoting a reduction in disease-producing bacteria.
Foods to include in your shopping trolley for healthy happy gut flora!
Prebiotic foods: garlic, fruit, asparagus, peas, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, leeks, legumes
Probiotic foods: sauerkraut, cottage cheese, yoghurt, tofu, miso
If you are interesting in reading more into how the health of your digestive system has an impact on your overall health, these are two excellent books worth reading.
- Digestive Wellness by Elizabeth Lipski, Ph.D (clinical nutritionist)
- Hard to Stomach, real solutions to your digestive problems by Dr John McKenna (trained medical doctor practising nutritional medicine for over 25 years)