When striving for wellness, we typically focus on our diet and sleeping habits to find balance and look after ourselves. While we do need good food and plenty of rest to truly thrive, it’s also crucial to place energy and focus on a somewhat invisible and underestimated group of organisms that live within our digestive tract, stomach, and small and large intestines. Throughout history, there has never been a focus on gut bacteria quite like there is right now. While some may call it obsessive, this behaviour has evolved out of pure fascination. Gut bacteria don’t look all that incredible, but their role and action within the body (which has been studied more intensively over the last decade) has provided answers to questions, ailments and diseases we did not previously know how to answer, nor heal.
As a collective, we’ve evolved over the last decade, away from a population obsessed with cleansing and disinfecting and now feel pretty comfy with the word bacteria; the un-clean, negative connotations have very much been lifted. We’ve established a clear differentiation between the good and the bad types of bacteria, and have noted the importance of having a good balance of the two. So much so that we’ve even come to refer to our gut and its ‘goings on’ as our ‘forgotten organ’.
The microbiota exercises influence over many bodily functions. Four of its major roles include:
– Playing a role in energy production and energy storage.
– Influencing our metabolism by fermenting and absorbing carbohydrates that aren’t fully digested.
– Interacting with the immune system by modulating the body’s immune cells and building its immune tolerance
– Affecting our nervous system due to the positioning of the body’s largest nerve, the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain to abdomen. The expression ‘gut instinct’ is more relevant than you think!
It’s clear based on these roles, that the microbiota has some pretty big shoes to fill, and it’s no wonder our fascination has manifested into obsession. In conversation with the microbiota, the human body has been referred to as ‘the host’ simply because the number of bacteria we house within our one, humble body, far outnumbers any number of body organs, muscles, tissues, cells, or even the thoughts we have! While much of what goes on within our microbiota is innate, we, as ‘the host’, also have the power to influence the quality, integrity and balance of our microbiota.
Changes to the composition of gut flora can occur thanks to the diet, through drug/antibiotic use, or presence of disease or infection. Gut flora is also altered when the body experiences emotional or physiological stress. Due to the location of the vagus nerve, when a change is made within the gut, or within the brain, both the gut and the brain feel and are influenced by this change. So why not go mad with supplemental probiotics, add fermented vegetables to every meal and sip on kombucha, right?
Yes and no.
“We’ve established a clear differentiation between the
good and the bad types of bacteria, and have noted
the importance of having a good balance of the two.”
As with all things, it always comes back to balance. We have billions of strains of bacteria within our digestive systems, and for every person, the types and amounts vary. A good broad-spectrum probiotic is a good supplement to add to the diet of a generally healthy person to help provide a well-rounded amount of bacterial species and boost the gut flora that’s already residing there. Probiotics also exist as small, specific formulas to target health conditions associated with a lack of one or two strains of bacteria. Knowing what’s right for you depends on the symptoms – speaking to your practitioner about what is right for your body is crucial.
In terms of dietary probiotics through traditional foods like sauerkraut and kombucha, a small amount every other day is usually both harmless and beneficial for healthy persons. Knowing whether these foods are right for you is also symptom-dependent. If on the introduction of these foods you feel worse, stop and consult your practitioner. It’s important to go slow at the beginning – a teaspoon of fermented vegetables and only around 30 ml of kombucha is a good place to start. Try it out every other day for a week and see how you feel.
The gut flora as a forgotten organ
The Impact of the Gut Microbiota on Human Health: An Integrative View
‘Gut health’: a new objective in medicine?
The Pervasive Effects of an Antibiotic on the Human Gut Microbiota, as Revealed by Deep 16S rRNA Sequencing
The Relationship Between Intestinal Microbiota and the Central Nervous System in Normal Gastrointestinal Function and Disease