Our intestines are home to an assortment of over 100 trillion bacteria. They perform many important functions for the body. An imbalance of the intestinal flora is a common cause of serious stomach complaints.
Human beings have evolved over millions of years, from apes to the creatures we are today. Throughout this transformation, trillions of bacteria have been co-habitants on our skin and within our bodies, helping to shape the course of our evolution. Instead of seeing bacteria as an outsider or invader bent on harming us, we should instead see them as a vital part of our bodies. Just as our body is built of cells and other biological structures, bacteria are a part of our body’s foundation.
Are You More Bacteria Than Human?
The large intestine is a world with 100 trillion microscopic inhabitants - bacteria. That is almost ten times the total number of cells in your body!
You could say that we are, in reality, 90% bacteria and only 10% human.
Bacteria live and work around the clock in our intestines. There are hundreds of different species of bacteria with various jobs and functions. Some live synergistically within the body, performing essential tasks in exchange for a suitable living environment. Others are troublemakers that must be neutralized.
Others do nothing more than take up space to crowd out the troublemakers. In order to ensure a good balance of flora in the intestine, we should have about 90% beneficial bacteria and no more than 10% harmful bacteria.
Friendly flora can provide many positive health effects: They stimulate a large part of our immune system. They manufacture vitamin B and vitamin K. They produce substances which lower the pH in the intestines, maintaining acidity that protects against harmful invaders. They produce serotonin which stimulates bowel movements and improves mood. The bacteria can also affect our nutrient uptake and help us burn fat.
Positive Effects of Intestinal Bacteria:
- Vitamins: manufactures vitamin B and vitamin K.
- Bowel support: promotes healthy bowel movements and elimination
- Immune support: stimulates the immune system
- Intestinal health: breaks down fiber into short-chain fatty acids, which are food for intestinal cells and help maintain a healthy intestinal tract
- Serotonin: needed to produce serotonin which stimulates elimination and helps maintain an elevated mood
- Protection: shields against invading organism such as parasites, bacteria, and yeast
- Weight: affects fat metabolism, an imbalance may contribute to weight gain
When our intestines contain too little, too much, or the wrong variety of bacteria, problems related to the bacterial imbalance tend to arise. The immune system may be weakened, bowel movements are disrupted, and other unpleasant organisms such as dangerous bacteria and parasites can take over.
This may also contribute to weight gain. In one study, researchers tested the effects of exchanging the intestinal bacteria of healthy-weight animals with overweight animals. What happened? The overweight animals lost weight while the thinner animals gained weight.
As we can see, there are many reasons to keep our intestinal flora in balance.
As we can see, there are many reasons to keep our intestinal flora in balance.
Diseases Linked With Microbial Imbalance (Dysbiosis)
Dysbiosis is a condition where there is an imbalance in your body’s bacterial population. It can occur in different ways: An excess of harmful bacteria paired with too little good bacteria, a build-up of bacteria in the wrong part of the body, an overall excess of bacteria, infection, parasites, yeast or intestinal worms.
Many studies have been conducted detailing the manner in which microorganisms in our body can affect our health. We have now discovered that there are correlations between dysbiosis and a host of illnesses.
Common Disorders and Diseases Associated with Dysbiosis:
- Autoimmune disorders
- Excessive belching
- Stomach bloat
- Celiac disease
- IBD: Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis
- IBS: irritable bowel syndrome
- Mucus or blood in stool
- Weight loss due to malabsorption of nutrients
- Anxiety and depression
- Food allergies
- Foul-smelling bowel movements
- Poor digestion
- Nausea when taking supplements
- Restless leg syndrome
- Skin disorders
- Undigested food particles in the stool
The importance of beneficial bacteria has also been demonstrated through the study of eating habits in different traditional cultures. Ancient people across the world are known to have eaten a variety of healthy foods, many of which contained the beneficial bacteria Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis. Some of these cultures were:
Asian cultures: consumed a variety of fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi.
The Ancient Romans: regularly consumed sauerkraut to maintain digestive health.
India: has long enjoyed a yogurt drink called Lassi. It is consumed regularly before meals to ease the stomach and help digestion.
Bulgaria: on some yogurt packages, you can see images of happy, healthy elderly men and women, many of whom are from Bulgaria. They have long consumed cultured milk products such as kefir and are known to enjoy good health well into old age.
Ancient people may not have understood all the ways in which food helped digestion and health, but they did take note of which foods helped keep them healthy.
What Can Destroy the Balance of Intestinal Flora?
Antibiotic medications may be necessary for acute illness, but when antibiotics are routinely taken, they can do more harm than good. Antibiotics kill harmful bacteria, but they also destroy the healthy bacteria. This leads to a state of disruption in the bacterial balance after a course of antibiotics.
A common scenario is that a patient is afflicted with a new infection due a weakened immune system shortly after completing a course of antibiotics. Typically, a new course of antibiotics is then administered, further upsetting the balance of intestinal flora. This vicious circle can continue until the good bacteria have been replenished and the balance of bacteria restored.
Lifestyle habits have a significant impact on intestinal flora. Medications, chronic stress, poor diet, alcohol, chlorine and fluoride can all damage good bacteria. Sugar is another major culprit, as it provides food for harmful bacteria and other unwanted intruders such as parasites and yeast. To restore intestinal flora, it is essential to correct all contributing factors at the same time.
How you are born affects your bacterial balance
Before you are born, your intestinal tract is completely free of bacteria. At the moment of birth, a baby is exposed to her mother's bacteria as she leaves the womb and passes through the birth canal. The bacteria settle quickly in the intestines and begin to stimulate and build up the immune system.
Swedish researchers have shown that children born through cesarean section are not exposed to the same bacteria, and have a reduced amount of certain bacterial species in their gut. The variety of different bacteria is also lower. This could put the child at an increased risk for various diseases as a result of a weakened, understimulated immune system.
Probiotics often help with:
- Stomach bloat
- Stomach pain
- Poor immune function
- Fungal infections
Individuals respond differently to probiotic supplementation. Some people respond quite favorably, while others do not notice a difference or report feeling worse. Therefore, it is often necessary for individuals to start with a trial run to see how they react. But in view of how much of an improvement probiotic supplementation may provide for many people’s intestinal distress, the risk of negative side effects is small.
3 Good Ways to Replenish With Probiotics:
There are several options to replenish beneficial bacteria: Consume cultured milk products such as yogurt and fil. Eat more lacto-fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and pickled carrots. Or supplement with small capsules packed with billions of good bacteria.
In Japan, it is common to repair flora with fermented soy products such as natto, miso, and tempeh. There are several advantages and disadvantages to this approach.
Yogurt offer a simple and inexpensive way to replenish good bacteria. A disadvantage is that these products can aggravate your stomach if you are sensitive to lactose or milk protein. Lactose-free products works if lactose is a problem. Choose products that are natural and free from additives, sugars and flavorings, and preferably organic.
* If you have been suffering from stubborn, recurring stomach complaints, you may be sensitive to the milk protein, casein. If this applies to you, it may be worthwhile to avoid all forms of milk products for 4 weeks to see if your condition improves.
2. Lacto-fermented Vegetables
Sauerkraut, pickled carrots and kimchi are all great choices for replenishing probiotics. Your body gets the benefits of healthy vegetables and good bacteria. Lacto-fermented vegetables also contain a wide range of bacterial strains, which provides a good variety of flora. To reap these benefits, the product must be unpasteurized. Unfortunately, most options in the larger supermarkets are pasteurized.
Look for unpasteurized varieties at the health food store. Start with very small amounts, just ½ teaspoon, then gradually increase to 1 to 2 tablespoons at the start of each meal to minimize any side effects.
1. Probiotic capsules
The advantage of capsules is that you can easily supplement with large doses of bacteria. There are also a variety of different brands. Brands may differ in the quantity, type, and blend of bacteria, and may or may not contain prebiotics. It can be difficult to know which brand to choose as different brands may provide different results for individuals.
Tips for Selecting Probiotics:
Try a variety of brands: different brands contain different bacteria, so try to find one that suits your needs.
Variation: the intestines have hundreds of unique strains of bacteria. By choosing a brand with a wide variety of bacterial strains, you increase the chance of replenishing the varieties that your body is lacking. A supplement with 10 different bacteria strains tends to be better than a supplement with just 1.
How many bacteria? The need varies from person to person. For milder imbalances or prevention, it may be sufficient to supplement 1-2 billion a day. For acute needs, it may be required to supplement 25-100 billion a day, particularly after antibiotic treatment.
Start small: for some, probiotic supplements may start out by stirring the pot as good bacteria starts competing with bad bacteria, creating further imbalances before healthy flora is restored. Therefore, it is wise to avoid starting with mega-doses of 25 billion or more, but to instead start with lower potency supplements.
Prebiotics: food for the good bacteria, allowing them a better chance to survive in your body. Inulin and FOS are two examples found in many supplements. Prebiotics can both alleviate or aggravate stomach complaints. If you have problems with gas or bloating, it is often best to avoid prebiotics to start. But over the long-term, it is important to supplement with prebiotics to support good bacteria in the gut. You may also get prebiotics in your diet from vegetables, fruits, root vegetables, and grains.
Lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacteria bifidum are two effective bacteria strains.
The right bacteria: there has been some research done to determine how various bacteria strains can protect against different types of stomach problems. Look for those bacteria strains that have been found to alleviate your specific condition.
*If it is necessary to take antibiotics, one should take extra measures to protect and replenish the balance of intestinal flora. Remember, antibiotics do an excellent job wiping out harmful bacteria, but they unfortunately eliminate the beneficial bacteria in the process. After a course of antibiotics, the balance of intestinal flora is often disrupted. There is a risk that harmful bacteria can take advantage of this imbalance, flourish, and out-compete beneficial bacteria.
Try some of the techniques above to see if they can help alleviate stomach complaints. Leave a comment if you have some experience to share about probiotics.