Did you know you have a microbial footprint that’s as unique as the fingerprints on your fingers? Inside your intestinal tract lies a diversity of bacteria, aptly called your gut microbiome. A dynamic collection of “friendly” bacteria. There’s growing evidence that these bacteria play an important role in your health.
Far from being inactive bystanders that “hang out” in your intestinal tract, these bacteria are metabolically active and can break down and ferment some types of fiber that enter your intestinal tract. Needless to say, you want the composition of your gut microbiome to be composed of healthy gut bacteria. Here are four reasons why.
Healthy Gut Bacteria: They Synthesize Vitamins
We think of vitamins as being components we get through diet, and that’s true, but gut bacteria provide extra vitamin “reinforcement” by synthesizing vitamin K and some B vitamins (biotin, folate, and vitamin B12) for you.
One form of vitamin K, called vitamin K2, is made by gut bacteria. Recent research shows vitamin K2 helps direct dietary calcium to your bones and teeth, where you want it, and away from the inside of arteries, where you don’t want it.
Therefore, vitamin K2 may lower the risk for osteoporosis and heart disease, based on preliminary research. Most of us don’t get enough vitamin K2 through diet. Gut bacteria give your vitamin K2 status a healthful boost.
Healthy Gut Bacteria Keep Intestinal “Bad Guys” in Check
A healthy population of gut bacteria helps defend your small intestines and colon against pathogenic bacteria and viruses that cause infectious diarrhea. In one study, probiotic bacteria helped protect animals from food poisoning caused by Salmonella bacteria. Even those animals that came down with food poisoning, the symptoms didn’t last as long. Having a healthy population of gut bacteria is no guarantee you’ll never get food poisoning, but it won’t hurt.
Situations where adding more probiotic bacteria to your diet is especially important is if you’re taking antibiotics or traveling to a new locality where you’ll be exposed to the water. Research shows probiotics can prevent more than 80% of cases of Traveler’s diarrhea. If you’re planning a trip, add more probiotics to your diet beforehand.
Healthy Gut Bacteria: They Keep Your Immune System Healthy
You might wonder what gut bacteria have to do with your immune system. Surprisingly, more than 70% of your immune system lies in your gut. This portion of your immunity is called GALT for gut-associated lymphoid tissue. Having the right population of gut bacteria in your small intestinal tract helps create a more balanced immune response, one that effectively wipes out harmful invaders while not over-reacting to the point that it damages normal tissues. A healthy, balanced immune system is vital for protection against infection and avoidance of autoimmune diseases.
Healthy Gut Bacteria May Help with Weight Control
Obese people have a gut microbiome that differs from those who are lean. Plus, in animals, when you take the gut bacteria from a lean animal and implant them in obese animals, the obese animals lose weight. The reverse also applies. Taking gut bacteria from obese animals and placing them into lean animals leads to weight gain.
How do gut bacteria influence body weight? For one, they break down fiber into compounds, including short-chain fatty acids, that increase satiety and improve insulin sensitivity. Therefore, healthy gut bacteria improve metabolic health. Having an unhealthy population of gut bacteria is also linked with higher levels of inflammatory markers. That’s harmful since inflammation is linked with obesity and poor metabolic health as well as other health problems.
Healthy Gut Bacteria: What Type of Bacteria Is Best?
There’s no denying the role gut bacteria play in keeping your intestinal tract and immune system healthy. As of yet, we don’t yet know the optimal composition of bacteria to maximize health, although having more of two species of bacteria, Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus seems to be favorable. Still, the ideal population of bacteria for treating irritable bowel and preventing obesity, for example, may be entirely different. Overall, research suggests that having a diverse population of gut bacteria is most conducive to health.
Healthy Gut Bacteria: Boosting Healthy Gut Bugs
While taking a probiotic supplement might be tempting, it’s also possible to boost your levels of probiotic bacteria through diet. There are two ways to do that. First, make sure you’re including fermented foods in your diet. The one that typically comes to mind is yogurt, but make sure the yogurt you purchase has live, active cultures. Some brands have a “live and active cultures” seal on the package.
Don’t stop with yogurt. Explore some of the other fermented foods that are now available such as tempeh, fresh sauerkraut, miso, and kimchi. Kefir and kombucha tea are other sources of probiotic bacteria. Fermented foods is growing in popularity as people become more aware of why they’re important.
Healthy Gut Bacteria: The Power of Prebiotics
Secondly, eat foods that contain prebiotics, the fiber-like material that gut-friendly bacteria thrive on. If you feed them, they’re more likely to flourish, multiply, and do good things for your digestive tract, your immune system, and your health.
A number of plant-based foods contain prebiotics, but some of the better sources are artichokes, onions, asparagus garlic, and leeks. Some packaged foods also contain added prebiotic fiber but stick with natural sources as much as possible.
Not all fiber qualifies as a prebiotic. For fiber to cultivate the growth of friendly gut bacteria, it must not be broken down by stomach acid and must reach the small intestine intact where it can be fermented by gut bacteria.
Another tip – eliminate processed foods from your diet. Research has linked a diet high in processed foods with a less diverse population of gut bugs. As mentioned, you WANT a varied population of gut bacteria.
Finally, don’t take unnecessary antibiotics. If your doctor gives you a prescription, make sure it’s justified. Most upper respiratory infections are caused by viruses and won’t respond to antibiotics anyway. The only thing that will happen is you’ll destroy the good bacteria in your intestinal tract you need for good health.
The Bottom Line
The bacteria that live in your small intestine impact many aspects of your health, so help yourself to more fermented foods, fiber-rich foods, and cut back on processed foods.
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