by Ute Allison, ND
The Subject in not new: As early as 1910 Ilya Mechnikow, the Russian microbiologist, won the Nobel prize for his research on the life prolonging effect of beneficial gut bacteria.
He famously said: “ Death lives in the intestine.”
Currently friendly bacteria are on everyone’s lips and foods with added so-called probiotics
(pro = in favour of, biotic = life or ecosystem) have got increasingly popular.
But what is the truth about these colourful advertising promises?
Bacteria are not all bad
We happily live together with billions of bacteria.
In contrary, we need the good ones to protect us from nasty ones and we have to treat
them with care.
Our friendly bacteria are called the “normal human microflora”.
They live in our GI (gastro-intestinal) tract, our genitor-urinary tract, our respiratory tract and on our skin. The basically cover all surfaces with contact to the outer world.
Our GI tract represents the biggest surface of our body, which comes into
contact with the outer world.
The surface of our intestine, stretched out, would cover 400 – 500 square meters.
A tennis court in our tummy. Amazing.
All the intestinal walls are covered in bacteria.
Their number actually outnumbers our body cell number 10 fold and
up to 50% of our bowel movements can consist of gut bacteria.
Function of our intestine
Our intestine has to perform an almost impossible task: It has to keep everything out of our system
which is bad for us, but absorb all good nutrients into our blood stream.
However, our intestine is not only the place of digestion but also our most important immune organ.
More than two thirds of our immune defence cells can be found there.
Here, more often than not, a weak immune system, chronic infections, inflammation and allergies make their start.
Also many people suffer from digestive problems like IBS, constipation or diarrhoea. Intestinal cancer is the second most frequent cancer in Germany and takes the life of about 30,000 people every year.
What do our friendly bacteria – the gut flora – do for us?
– The gut flora digests fibre and transforms this into mild, natural acids.
These metabolic end products of our good bacteria nourish our mucosa cells.
We need best quality mucosa cells, as they need to be able to absorb all nutrients.
– The mild, natural acids also stimulate our peristalsis, which is necessary for bowel movements.
– The good bacteria physically line our gut walls preventing any nasty microbes to settle. This protects us from infections or for example candida overgrowth.
– They produce vitamins, like vitamin K, which is necessary to stop bleeding.
– Lactobacilla produce lactic acid, which can kill other, bad microbes.
– Many bacteria give off natural antibiotics which kill other pathogenic (ill making) microbes.
– Gut bacteria train our immune system and make it strong.
– All mucous tissues in our body communicate with each other, so our gut bacteria even strengthen the immune system of all other mucous tissues and can for example protect us from urinary tract or respiratory infections.
– Good bacteria help our immune system to distinguish between good and bad and help to prevent allergies.
– Latest research (2002) has found that our good bacteria can even protect us from rheumatic problems and probably even cancer.
– Overweight people seem to have a different gut flora. So our good bacteria can even help to regulate blood fat levels. Unfortunately the studies are not totally conclusive yet.
– … and much more
How does it all start?
From birth a newborn baby, who has lived in the sterile environment of the womb, gets into contact with the microbes of its environment. At this point the kind of birth will decide which kind of microbes will first colonise the baby. In natural birth the child will have contact to the skin and vaginal flora of its mother, whereas after a caesarean the ‘first settlers’ are usually hospital microbes. It is not rare that already at this point a succession of constantly relapsing respiratory infections, ear infections and allergies will start.
The diet in the first months also has an important influence on the intestinal flora.
Breast fed children host other bacteria than bottle fed ones. Mother milk also contains a multitude of immune molecules, which give invading bacteria a hard time. Bottle fed babies are lacking this “fortress” of defence.
A complete intestinal ecosystem has usually been established at the age of two.
Now about 400 different species of microbes inhabit the gut and the do the jobs described above.
Especially in modern times, when life is much cleaner than in those times when our immune system was developed, this training with the intestinal flora is more important than ever. A bored immune system will start to look for other sparring partners (for example allergens) to avoid being unemployed.
What stresses our gut flora?
In the last 10 years prescriptions for antibiotics have multiplied by the factor 10, though the diseases, which are usually treated with antibiotics, have only doubled during this time. Antibiotics are very important in fighting bacterial infections and have saved countless people’s lives for many decades. It is a fact, however, that for example in Germany antibiotics are also prescribed in illnesses, which cannot be influenced by antibiotics – for example flu like infections.
Unfortunately antibiotics do not just kill the bacteria, which make us ill, but also the beneficial gut bacteria. Through this the body’s own defence system gets another setback and the immune function is clearly diminished. The next infection is basically pre-programmed.
What can go wrong if our gut flora is not healthy?
Basically all the functions we have listed above can be disturbed.
One problem, which has been in the media a lot, is for example candida overgrowth with all its consequences, like for example IBS.
What can we do to keep our gut flora healthy?
– Eat plenty of fibre
– Make sure to offer your gut flora enough minerals and vitamins.
– Avoid too much sugar (beware of hidden sugars). It feeds the wrong kind of bacteria and causes massive fermentation.
– Avoid too much fat and too much animal protein (which fees putrefaction bacteria).
– Make sure you have regular bowel movements.
– Avoid antibiotics when possible (never reject possibly life saving antibiotics!!).
– Avoid NSAIDs (non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).
– Avoid cortisone and hormones if possible.
– Eat freshly prepared food.
– Avoid highly processed and preserved food (“Preservatives give the food a long shelf life and the customer a short life”).
– Avoid additives
– Supplement probiotics
What can we do to improve our gut flora?
To give our gut flora and our immune system, if it is weakened, a good head start
we can undertake a repopulation with good bacteria, known as probiotics, importantly alongside good nutrition. This is advisable at least after an antibiotic therapy. This bacterial support can work wonders, particularly in children. More than half of all antibiotic prescriptions for nose and throat infections are issued for under 4 years olds. As a consequence many children contract allergies or even more infections – a vicious circle begins.
The re-colonisation of the gut flora can have a positive influence on a life long ‘allergy career’ for this group. Finnish scientists who fed babies with lactobacilli for several months directly after birth achieved a fifty percent decrease in atopic eczema.
But not only antibiotics harm the intestinal ecosystem. Diet errors, stress and medication (cortisone, hormones, laxatives, pain killers) also cause harm in the intestine on long term. Many people eat too frequently, too fast, too much fat and not enough fibre. But it is the fibre, which supplies the good gut bacteria with nutrients. If they are malnourished, they disappear from the intestine and those bacteria, which can digest sweets and fats move in. The metabolism of these is rather unfavourable, however, and can damage the gut lining on long term as well as make way for inflammation, infections and allergies.
Today a great variety of food is on offer, advertising ‘with probiotics’ on the label. However, in contrary to good supplements, foods do not have to guarantee a long survival rate of their added bacteria. Bacteria in supplements have been chosen specifically for their special metabolic qualities and their good survival rates during their passage through the stomach and intestine and their ability to colonise our gut. If you really want to change your inner ecosystem, it is certainly more cost effective to choose a good supplement than to spend a lot on probiotic foods.
BTS recommends Ecobalance by Bionutri (http://www.bionutri.co.uk, Telephone 0121 628 1901).