There are at least 10 times more bacterial cells in the body than human cells, including more than 500 different species living in the large intestine. There are an estimated 10-100 trillion bacteria, yeasts and other microorganisms, weighing approximately 1-2 kg. While some of these are potentially harmful, in a healthy gut, the majority are beneficial. However, when this microflora is out of balance, referred to as dysbiosis, the health of the gut is compromised, and illness can occur.
The intestinal microflora perform a number of critical jobs within the GI tract. These include:
· Immune modulation
· Anti-inflammatory action
· Protection against some forms of cancer
· Inhibiting the invasion of harmful microorganisms
· Promoting digestive health and prevention of gastrointestinal disorders
· Increasing the protective barrier function of the gut wall, reducing absorption of harmful food allergens and toxins
· Facilitating absorption of some minerals, including calcium, magnesium and iron
· Production of neurotransmitters
· Production of vitamins including vitamin K and B12.
What can cause an unhealthy gut flora?
What we eat and how we live can change the makeup of our gut flora, with many factors putting it out of balance. Here are a few of the common reasons.
· Use of antibiotics
· A diet high in processed food, sugar, trans fats & refined grains
· Environmental toxins
· Over-consumption of alcohol
· Poor maternal gut microflora
· C-section birth and/or formula fed babies.
How can you tell if your gut microflora is out of balance?
If your 'good' bacteria are outnumbered by the 'bad' there is a good chance you may be experiencing one or more of the following complaints.
· Digestive issues including constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, excessive flatulence, heartburn
· Irritable bowel syndrome
· Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's or Ulcerative colitis)
· Mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, brain fog
· Skin conditions including eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, and acne
· Auto-immune disease
· Helicobacter pylori infection
· Recurrent infections (e.g. respiratory or urinary)
· Chronic stress
· Food intolerances
· Obesity and metabolic syndrome
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms, such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, that when consumed, beneficially affect the balance of the intestinal flora.
The best source of probiotics is fermented foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, miso and tamari. Each mouthful can contain up to 10 trillion colony-forming units of bacteria of many varieties, much more than that found in supplements. Therefore, daily consumption of a variety of these foods is recommended to create a healthy, balanced microflora, and to help prevent or treat chronic diseases, such as those listed above.
How much fermented food to consume will depend on how your body tolerates it. If you experience symptoms of gas, bloating, diarrhoea or constipation on consumption, then reduce the amount of probiotic food and build up slowly.
If you aren't eating enough fermented foods, probiotic supplementation could be beneficial. When selecting a probiotic, it is important to choose one with as many different species of bacteria as possible. Additionally, strains of bacterial species have different actions and will be suitable for specific illnesses. Therefore, when treating a specific condition with probiotic supplements it is advisable to consult a naturopath to ensure you are receiving the correct strains of bacteria for that condition.