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I remember being excited as a kid, every September meant new clothes, school supplies, teachers and classes…a fresh start to a new year. The more I learn about health and wellness, the more I realize that one of the most important factors to success in school starts with the our humble microbe populations that live in our digestive tracts.
It is said we are 10% human, and 90% microbe…a healthy gut houses over 100 trillion friendly bacteria, which is a ratio of 10:1 to the number of cells in your body. Why are these critters so important? The reality is that without these friendly bugs, your digestion, brain health and immune function would simply not function. At any given time, you have around 160 bacterial species (types) in your gut out of over 1000 species of bacteria. The digestive tract is one of the most complex eco systems to understand and study. The individualized bacteria composition found in each body play a vital role in keeping us healthy. Having the right strains, in the right amount and in the right part of the digestive tract are critical to our overall sense of well-being, and should therefore, be a part of our daily health practice.
These good germs make enzymes that facilitate digestion, manufacture key nutrients, boost immune function, impact mood and learning, and create a competitive environment in which other disease causing bacteria and yeast have a difficult time to overgrow. In a healthy system, these good guys outnumber the pathogenic microbes about 5 to 1, but this balance is can be easily upset.
So how do we keep these good guys to stick around? It is estimated that 70% of our immune system is housed in our gut, so keeping it in good working order is incredibly important. In a normal healthy gut, there are small numbers of parasites, pathogenic bacteria and yeast but in these numbers, they rarely cause any health problems. That changes when the populations of the good microbes start to decline. The pathogenic organisms in this situation tend to overgrow and cause symptoms such as:
- digestive problems – bloating, gas, lactose intolerance, constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis
- skin problems like psoriasis and eczema
- joint problems
- behavioural and neurological issues like ADHD, poor memory, inability to focus
Why should we have to continue to replenish our good gut microbes?
Unfortunately, there are many factors that influence your levels of gut flora. Most commonly, these include:
- Medications – we use antibiotics to keep infection in check – pharmaceutical antibiotics account for 20% of our overall intake per year
- Conventionally grown, meat, chicken, and dairy – use of antibiotics in agriculture accounts for the other whopping 80%
- Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories such as Advil, Motrin and Midol can irritate the stomach lining, and allow for the growth of Helicobacter pylori (a bacteria that is related to stomach ulcers)
- Chlorine, found in almost all tap and bottled drinking water
- Diets high in meat and low in plant foods promote the growth of harmful bacteria due to their slower digestion
- Constipation prevents the rapid expulsion of harmful bacteria, which allow them to grow and multiply
- Cigarettes, alcohol, junk food and stress
- Radiation and chemotherapy
The balance of good and bad gut microbes is an ongoing process…as with every organ system, your health is in a constant state of flux, and your body is continually trying to find the optimal balance needed to ensure good health.
The most effective way to encourage the ratios of good microbes is to supplement with a good probiotic on a regular basis. You can also eat fermented foods – miso, tempeh, kim chi, kefir and sauerkraut are all good dietary sources of beneficial flora. Homemade yogurt (can be made with organic milk, coconut milk or even almond milk), or organic yogurts labelled with live active cultures is another option. Processed foods, including most commercial yogurts, are pasteurized which kills all of the bacteria in the food, and as such, are not adequate sources of replenishing gut flora.
What is the best choice for a probiotic supplement?
Unfortunately, not all probiotic supplements are created equal. It is important not only to know the genus and species (eg. Lactobacillus (genus name) acidophilus (species name), but also the strain used in the formulation. Not all strains provide health benefits. There are a variety of supplements containing upwards of 10 strains in large quantities. Often these formulations have not been studied to see if these organisms co-exist well in the capsule. The largest groups of human probiotic bacteria are bifidobacteria which predominate the large intestine, and the lactobacilli, usually found in the small intestine.
The following tips are the most important things you need to look for when purchasing a probiotic supplement:
- Look for the International Good Manufacturing Practice certification (cGMP), which will ensure that you are receiving the highest quality probiotic..
- You must also look for a potency guarantee for each strain listed on the bottle label through the printed expiration date. The listing must include the strain, not just the genus and species. Without the strain listed, you may be getting a worthless bacteria.
- Probiotics must be stored and shipped refrigerated to ensure maximum potency and viability.
- Purchasing a probiotic that is formulated with its supernatant (culturing medium) has been found to increase the benefits of the probiotic by up to 50 percent.