Did you know that many types of bacteria are actually good for you?
Microbes are tiny microorganisms that include bacteria, fungi and viruses. Collectively known as microbiota, they hang around in every environment on the planet, including inside our bodies.
There are around 40 trillion microbes living in and on us. In fact, we have more microbes on one hand than there are people on the planet! But most of them live in our gut.
Traditionally, microbes have had a bad reputation. But we now know that while some microbes are bad for us, others are very good for us. In fact, microbes are essential for a number of important bodily functions, especially good gut health.
There are 100 million microbes in our gut. These influence our physical and emotional health in ways that we never realised before. Scientists are regularly discovering new connections between our gut health and our overall well being.
Microbes: The friendly passengers
We inherit a bunch of microbes from our mothers when we’re born. Others jump on board as we grow up and interact with the world around us.
These tiny organisms help educate our immune cells, teaching them the difference between things they should fight off (such as bad viruses), and bacteria that’s actually helpful. When we’re adults, microbes become our first line of defence against nasty germs.
Like different ecosystems in nature, microbes live in different areas of our bodies. Different species have adapted to dry conditions (such as our forearms), wet conditions (our mouths), or oily areas (such as our scalp).
But the biggest area where microbes live is in our gut.
Our guts are like bug megacities where a variety of important functions are signalled and organised. Things like revving up our immune system to fight infection, digesting food, and regulating metabolism.
What’s even more fascinating is that our gut microbiota can influence our mood and behaviour. Emerging researchis indicating that it may also affect the nervous system, which controls brain function.
There’s good reason why the gut is known as the 2nd brain!
The keys to good gut health
Hundreds of species of microbes live in our digestive system. This community of microorganisms is known as our gut flora or microbiota.
While over 1,000 different bacterial species have been found to exist in the human gut, as individuals we’re harbouring less and less variety of microbe species. A diet high in fat and refined sugars but low in fibre is believed to contribute to our dwindling microbial diversity.
This lack of diversity has been linked to a wide range of health problems such as food allergies, eczema, asthma, and celiac disease.
Studies have shown that healthy individuals have substantial diversity of their gut microbiota. This is believed to be due to certain species having different ‘jobs’ to do within our bodies. Some species of microbes do the same job as others; some do a different job, and others we’re only just beginning to learn about.
But one thing is clear: the more species of bacteria we have working helpfully away, the greater number of health benefits they may be able to contribute to.
It stands to reason that the food we eat greatly affects the types of bacteria that live inside us. After all, they are organisms too, and all organisms need food!
So it’s important to nourish a diverse species of bacteria in our gut.
Because the healthier it is, the healthier we are.
There are two ways to maintain a healthy balance within our microbiome:
- Adding new healthy microbes to our gut
- Feeding the hungry horde that’s living there already
Both of these are achieved through prebiotics and probiotics. Although the two sound pretty similar, they play two different roles in our health.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics contain live microbes that can add to the population of healthy bacteria in our gut. Our bodies cannot create them, so instead we get them from certain foods, the environment and health supplements.
Probiotics help combat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common digestive disorder, reducing gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and other symptoms of digestive problems.
Other health benefits of probiotics include:
- Reducing inflammation
- Lowering ‘bad’ cholesterol
- Reducing blood pressure
- Boosting immune function
- Improving skin health
The most well-known probiotic food is yogurt. Yogurt contains live bacteria, particularly Lactobacillusand Bifidobacterium.
Fermented foods are also a great option, as they contain microbes that thrive on the naturally occurring sugar and fibre in fermented food.
Some examples of fermented foods include:
What are prebiotics?
While probiotics contain live beneficial bacteria, prebiotics are specialised fibres that feed our gut flora. This helps our gut microbiota absorb vitamins, support our natural immune defences, and promote a balanced digestive system.
Prebiotics are found in many fruits and vegetables, especially those that contain fibre and resistant starch. These fibres aren’t digestible by the body, so they pass through our digestive system and straight to microbe headquarters: our gut.
These foods contain ingredients that feed good gut flora:
- Raw garlic cloves
- Chicory root
- Whole wheat flour
- Raw asparagus
In the gut microbiome, the “good” bacteria don’t just help with digestion. They help keep your “bad” bacteria under control. So it’s important to eat plenty of gut-healthy foods to maintain equilibrium in our gut flora.
If you’re not getting enough of probiotics and prebiotics from your diet – and not many of us are – supplements may help.