Another wonderful article written by my father, Mark Spain. As the article mentions below, if you are interested in a probiotic supplement, please feel free to talk with me about recommendations.
The flora in our gut is sometimes referred to as the forgotten organ to highlight their important metabolic and protective roles. These microorganisms, over 99% of which are bacteria, are present in a quantity tenfold greater than the total number of cells in our body, and are estimated to contain about one hundred times as many genes in aggregate as there are in the human genome. They perform various functions including:
- Helping to digest certain foods that the stomach and small intestine have been unable to.
- Aiding in the manufacture of substances like neurotransmitters (including serotonin), enzymes, vitamins (notably B’s and K), and other essential nutrients.
- Crowding out less savory microbial characters, thereby nurturing the integrity of the intestinal epithelium that is so important in protecting us from infection and inflammation.
- Training and modulating our immune system, helping it to accurately distinguish between friend and foe.
The gastrointestinal tract of a normal fetus is sterile. During birth and rapidly thereafter, the infant’s
gut is colonized by a microorganism milieu, the composition of which is in part dependent on the mode
of birth (cesarean or vaginal), on feeding (breast or bottle), and on environmental conditions. By about
the age of three, the gut flora population becomes relatively stable and similar to that of adults. It is,
however, highly personalized, and continues to be influenced by both environment and diet. And while
adaptable to change, the flora can become unbalanced in some specific situations.
What are the implications of such imbalances? One of the most interesting, and conceivably significant,
recent ideas among a growing number of medical researchers is that inflammation may be the common
denominator of many, if not most, of the chronic diseases from which we suffer today. And one
theory is that the problem begins in the gut with a disorder of the flora causing loss in permeability
of the epithelium, which if breached, allows for entry of bacteria, endotoxins, and proteins into the
bloodstream. In turn, the body’s immune system mounts a response, and experiments suggest that,
over time, the resulting low grade inflammation may lead to the chronic diseases.
How do these imbalances occur? Two crucial factors are use of antimicrobials and diet. Antibiotics
are revolutionary for the treatment of infectious diseases, but our gut flora are susceptible to their
effects as well. Studies have shown that a course of antibiotics both decreases total bacterial counts
and causes shifts in relative proportions of certain populations. Resilience seems to be varied, ranging
from return to something like the initial structure within a few weeks to persistence of an altered
microbial community for years. Moreover, we are exposed to antibiotic residues in meat, milk, and
surface water, and the routine use of products containing other antimicrobial compounds, such as hand
sanitizers, additionally assaults our gut flora.
Eating habits can significantly impact both the composition and the well-being of our gut flora.
Fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut contain large numbers of probiotic bacteria,
and while most of these don’t appear to take up permanent residence in the gut, there is evidence
they might in some ways positively influence the existing community. On the nutrient side, what we
typically consume doesn’t feed the gut, only the upper gastrointestinal tract. Highly processed food
deprives the trillion gut microorganisms of the nourishment (collectively termed prebiotics) they like
best: undigested complex carbohydrates – from sources such as resistant starch (in bananas, oats, and
beans), soluble fiber (in onions and other root vegetable, and in nuts), and insoluble fiber (in whole
grains, especially bran, and in avocados) – which are fermented to produce short-chain fatty acids that
nourish the gut barrier and help prevent inflammation.
So in light of this information, what should we do? First, don’t panic. In keeping with the concept of
moderation, there are sensible ways to go about enhancing our gut health.
- If you willing and able to do so, introduce some fermented foods into your diet on a regular basis.
- Eat more unprocessed foods. A lot has been written about the goodness of whole grains, and now you have an even stronger reason to include them in your nutritional regime. Al dente pasta and lightly cooked vegetables also give the bugs more to chomp on.
- By all means take antibiotics as required to tackle serious medical conditions, but question the need in other circumstances, such as when prescribed prophylactically (e.g., in conjunction with a viral infection).
- Recent news stories have reported on a move to prohibit treatment of food animals with antibiotics, and that would be a good thing. Meanwhile, make common sense decisions about what to feed yourself and your children.
- Try to stay away from soaps, lotions, and other products containing antimicrobial compounds. There are “natural” counterparts to such goods, but again, common sense should be exercised in their use.
- Talk with your healthcare practitioner about prebiotic and probiotic supplements. Get beyond the hype and learn the facts in order to determine whether they are right for you personally. And as with other types of food supplements on the market, there is a myriad of commercial products from which to choose, and so be an informed consumer.
Now you have some idea of the current state of knowledge with respect to this forgotten organ of gut
flora, and while there is much yet to be learned, you probably possess enough information to begin
treating it better. Even small steps hold the potential for freedom from the kinds of ailments that can
reduce the quality of our lives sooner or later.