Updated: Dec 10, 2020
Our intestinal microflora is first established at birth, when the baby acquires healthy microbes during the passage through the birth canal. Breast-feeding and skin-to-skin contact with the mother also passes on healthy bacteria. However, for those babies that are born by caesarian section, it is likely that they may fall short on establishing this microbial diversity, otherwise known as our gut microbiota, putting them at risk of potential long term health consequences. Probiotic supplements can help us to target specific health problems such as digestive disorders, skin issues, low mood, depression, anxiety, as well as overall good health by supporting the immune system.
1. Supports the immune system
Recent research is showing us that a healthy gut environment is the key to overall good health. The research shows that there is a direct link between the ecology of our gastrointestinal tract and our immunity (1). As the gastrointestinal tract is the largest surface area that is constantly exposed to foreign antigens and microbes from the environment, it is fortunate that it is protected by a large variety of immune cells and other structures that help to maintain intestinal homeostasis. While the role of the microbiome is to synthesise vitamins and short-chain fatty acids, it is also vitally important for the development and function of the immune system (2). By restoring and maintaining a healthy balance of gut bacteria, we are able to keep our immune system functioning optimally.
2. Supports gut health and the microbiota
The microbiota is the community of beneficial bacteria that inhabits our gastrointestinal tract, which can be disrupted by many dietary and environmental factors including processed foods, sugar, refined vegetable oils, alcohol, pharmaceutical medications, chemicals in our personal hygiene products, as well as stress and over-exercise. Conversely, it can be positively impacted by good food choices, for example high fibre foods such as a diverse variety of vegetables and fruit, legumes, fermented foods and probiotics, prebiotic foods that feed the good bacteria, moderate exercise, meditation, and good sleep. Therefore, we know that our diet and lifestyle has a major impact on the health of our microbiota. We can easily fall prey to digestive distress such as constipation and diarrhoea when our beneficial bacteria are out of balance.
3. Supports mental health
It’s not only our immune and digestive systems that benefit from a healthy microbiota. Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT), is a neurotransmitter of the central nervous system, which is predominantly secreted in the gut (95%) and the remaining 5% is found in the brain. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that serotonin systems affect the gut-brain axis, in people suffering from depression, which may in turn lead to gut imbalances (3). Other new studies are showing us that this direct link between the gut and the brain (the gut-brain axis) is due to the fact that beneficial bacteria and pathogenic bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract can activate neural pathways and central nervous system signalling systems. Ongoing research is looking for the connection between stress being an underlying factor in bacterial imbalance, and how this can then impact on our mood and create anxiety or depression (4). Besides these 3 good reasons, probiotics also support our hormonal health, skin health, nutrient absorption, and healthy metabolism.
There are hundreds of different strains of bacteria, both good and bad, and sometimes the not so good bacteria or pathogenic bacterial strains like Candida albicans or Clostridium difficile can overpopulate, leading to an imbalance of bacteria, otherwise known as dysbiosis. These pathogens are opportunistic, meaning that they can overgrow when the host (you) consumes an unhealthy diet (too much sugar, alcohol, caffeine etc.), or is under a great deal of stress, and/or living an unhealthy lifestyle. Dysbiosis of the gut microbiota is closely linked to several diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). And it is now thought that keeping the gut microbiota balanced may be an effective treatment for chronic inflammatory disease states (5). A useful metaphor is to think of your gut microbiota as like a garden that needs constant care and attention. When the weeds (pathogenic bacteria) take over the plants (beneficial bacteria) then health issues arise. Including fermented foods (fertiliser) in the diet may help to feed the microbiome the beneficial bacteria it needs to thrive.
Probiotic supplements Another strategy is to use probiotic supplements. If you’ve taken a course of antibiotics, it’s generally recommended that you follow it with a course of probiotics. This is because antibiotics are known to kill off many of our good or beneficial bacteria in our gut. A course of probiotics can help to repopulate the gut microbiota with beneficial bacteria. But not all probiotics are created equally. The type of bacteria and the strain are specific to different conditions. Some strains of probiotics can actually make some gut problems worse by increasing histamines in the gastrointestinal tract. If you struggle with histamine issues then Bifidobacterium species may benefit you. Other well-researched beneficial strains include Lactobacillus and Saccharomyces boulardii. It is important to supplement with the specific strain for your condition.
Photo by Daily Nouri on Unsplash Fermented foods vs. probiotic supplements Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and kefir can provide our gut with many beneficial bacteria, and consuming them on a regular basis is a useful way to keep a healthy gut well-balanced. However, under certain circumstances, sometimes it may be necessary to take a course of probiotic supplements for therapeutic reasons. For instance, if we have had to take a course of antibiotics, which are known to kill off our beneficial bacteria, it is necessary to replenish the good bacteria with a therapeutic dose. Additionally, some conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may greatly benefit from a course of high dose specific strain probiotics (6). And individuals with IBS or SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) may find that fermented foods cause digestive discomfort due to overstimulation of the bacterial overgrowth of the small intestine. For these people, it may be necessary to start low and go slow when introducing probiotic strains into the gastrointestinal tract. Embarking on a gut clearance protocol may also be necessary before probiotics and fermented foods are tolerated.
There are so many different probiotic supplements on the market, it can be difficult to know which ones are the most beneficial. Consulting with a trained natural health professional can help you to find the right strain for you. Also don’t be fooled by many of the probiotic drinks available in the supermarkets. Shop wisely! While there are many new really great products starting to emerge, ensure that you read the ingredients labels carefully and any product that has added sugar is unlikely to be beneficial to your microbiota.
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References 1. Artis, D. (2008) ‘Epithelial-cell recognition of commensal bacteria and maintenance of immune homeostasis in the gut’, Nature Reviews Immunology. doi: 10.1038/nri2316. 2. Mcdermott, A. J. and Huffnagle, G. B. (2014) ‘The microbiome and regulation of mucosal immunity’, Immunology. doi: 10.1111/imm.12231. 3. Agrawal, L. et al. (2020) ‘Therapeutic potential of serotonin 4 receptor for chronic depression and its associated comorbidity in the gut’, Neuropharmacology. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2020.107969. 4. Foster, J. A. and McVey Neufeld, K. A. (2013) ‘Gut-brain axis: How the microbiome influences anxiety and depression’, Trends in Neurosciences. doi: 10.1016/j.tins.2013.01.005. 5. Shi, N. et al. (2017) ‘Interaction between the gut microbiome and mucosal immune system’, Military Medical Research. doi: 10.1186/s40779-017-0122-9. 6. Whelan, K. and Quigley, E. M. M. (2013) ‘Probiotics in the management of irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease’, Current Opinion in Gastroenterology. doi: 10.1097/MOG.0b013e32835d7bba.