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Gut health: a balancing act

Dr. Kate Rhéaume-Bleue, N.D

You are only mostly human. Well, not even mostly. If you could count up the total number of cells in your body only about 40% would be human cells. The rest would be bacteria. This should come as a surprise to most people, and it helps us appreciate the significance of the microorganisms that we carry inside us. Since the early history of microbiology was dominated by the quest to identify and vanquish microbes responsible for disease, it was easy to overlook the reality that the vast majority of bacteria are our allies. To really grasp the importance of the “microbiota”, think about the collection of trillions of bacteria in your intestines as a new organ, one that has profound effects on a huge range physiological functions.

Of course the bacteria in our GI tract help us digest food by producing enzymes and assimilating nutrients. Gas, bloating and indigestion can be signs of an imbalance of healthy bacteria. A healthy microbiome is thought to play a role in body weight – overweight people have a different bacterial profile than their thinner friends. A major action of gut bacteria is to keep our immune system humming. When beneficial bacteria are lacking this can increase our susceptibility to colds and the flu, as well as more serious chronic illness. Well-balanced intestinal bacteria even appear to influence mood, aiding with conditions like anxiety and depression.

Throughout life our delicately balanced microbiome can become unbalanced for a variety of reasons. A course of antibiotics, antibiotic residues in food, a bout of stomach flu, traveler’s diarrhea, stress or even just aging can throw our gut bacteria out of kilter. Fortunately you can help reestablish bacterial balance.

Just as a pregnant women is said to be “eating for two”, your diet also feeds your microbiota. Gut bacteria generally enjoy fiber, so eating plenty of fruit, vegetables and legumes encourages a healthy microbiome. Fermented foods like yogurt, cheese, and sauerkraut actually contain beneficial bacteria similar to those found in the digestive tract, so they help maintain bacterial balance as well. Intestinal microbes even feast on dark chocolate and produce heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory compounds to show us how much they enjoy it.

Probiotics supplements are a convenient way to top-up good bacteria. Look for a product that is refrigerated and contains a blend of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria. These two families of probiotics benefit the small and large intestines, respectively. Aim for at least 10 billion live cells per daily dose for general health maintenance. There are unique probiotic formulas designed specifically for children, women, seniors and people with serious illness. Shop at a store with well-trained staff who can help you choose the right product for you.