Do you know that your body contains about 100 trillion bacteria? They can weigh up to 2kg, they can be found on the skin’s surface, inside the mouth and the uro-genitary tract, but most live in the large intestine.
There are more than 1000 different types living in the large intestine. Many of these are helpful but some can be harmful. The balance between these good and bad bacteria is crucially important to your health.
There are more bacteria in your gut than there are humans on this planet! And there are as many bacteria in your gut, often more, than cells in your entire body.
What’s so important about the balance of friendly bacteria?
- Help with nutrient absorption
- Help the body break down undigested food and neutralise harmful by-products of food breakdown
- Play a crucial role in the immune system
- Support production of vitamin K and B vitamins
- Reduce the risk of developing allergies and intolerances
- Help to create an environment that protects us from unhealthy microorganisms, by controlling levels of oxygen and acidity in the gut.
- Research suggests that maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut may help to support reduced cravings, weight loss, and reduce the risks of metabolic problems such as type 2 diabetes
- Gut-brain link – research has shown links between alterations in the gut flora with anxiety, depression, autism and hyperactivity.
- The gut microbiome is an exciting area of research – we are finding out more and more that nurturing a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria is vitally important to our health
Symptoms that suggest your gut flora may be out of balance:
- Gas and bloating
- Constipation / diarrhoea
- Low mood
- Sugar cravings / cravings for refined carb foods
- Weight gain
- Allergies / intolerances
- Low immune health
How to nurture a healthy balance of gut bacteria
Feed the good – The beneficial bacteria thrive on a diet rich in wholefoods, fruits and vegetables so you need to include lots of these in your diet. Basically they thrive on a healthy, natural-foods diet. Foods that feed the beneficial bacteria are known as ‘prebiotics’. Prebiotic foods known be highly useful to the bacteria include asparagus, bananas, onions, garlic, cabbage, chicory root, dandelion greens, beans and lentils, wholegrains, artichokes, root vegetables and apples.
Starve the bad – Sugar, alcohol, caffeine, refined and processed foods are to be avoided, as these can feed unhealthy organisms, and tip the balance in favour of pathogenic organisms, upsetting the environment and making it difficult for the friendly bacteria to get a foot-hold.
Probiotic-rich foods – As well as providing food for the good guys and starving the bad, eating probiotic-rich foods can support a healthy balance. Think fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, tempeh, natto and lassi. These are much more effective than natural, live yogurt as they contain high levels of a variety of beneficial bacteria.
Probiotic supplement – Choose a supplement that contains scientifically proven strains to ensure it will be effective, and one that can survive the stomach acid and reach the intestines intact, otherwise it will be ineffective. Speak to a nutritionist to find out which brands are effective.
Antibiotics only when necessary – Antibiotics wipe out both good and bad bacteria so only take them when absolutely necessary. If you do need to take them always be sure to follow up with a high strength probiotic supplement in order to replenish your beneficial gut microflora, as well as paying attention to your diet whilst taking antibiotics and afterwards too. Eat plenty of prebiotic foods that will help the good bacteria to repopulate and avoid refined, sugary foods to limit the growth of unhealthy microorganisms.
Minimise exposure to environmental & lifestyle factors – Friendly bacteria are highly vulnerable to damage by lifestyle and environmental factors. Chlorinated and fluoridated water, antibacterial soaps, agricultural chemicals and pesticides, pollution, stress, noise and food additives can all interfere with a healthy gut microflora, so it’s worth assessing your exposure to these factors and taking steps to minimise where possible. Stress has been studied to be detrimental to a healthy gut flora, so incorporating regular relaxation into your lifestyle to reduce stress can be useful. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness are techniques that have a long history of use for reducing stress and supporting overall wellbeing.