You may have heard the terms good bacteria, probiotics, prebiotics or healthy flora being used in the marketing of yogurt and other foods, or in conversation with your friends.
Using probiotics for digestive support has increased tremendously since the mid-1990s. But why are probiotics so important? What benefits do they have for health other than the regulation of digestion?
Your digestive process
Once the mouth and stomach have broken down our foods, the small intestine works to absorb the nutrients. Any undigested food that the small intestine is unable to use enters the large intestine where our bacteria further breaks it down and absorbs anything that’s leftover.
The role of the “good guys”
The large intestine is not a sterile place. It is home to bacteria called “flora” that are made up of approximately three pounds of bacteria and other micro-organisms; both good and bad, competing for nutrients and space.
- Supports the immune system
- Stimulates the gut mucosa to produce antibodies to pathogens
- Produces natural antifungal and antibiotic substances
- Produces vitamin K, which is essential for the formation and repair of our bones
- Produces B vitamins required to maintain the muscle tone in the gastrointestinal tract that regulates digestion
- Reduces the low-grade inflammation that can contribute to obesity
- Uses nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, making it easier to digest foods properly and efficiently, so we store less energy and fat
- Metabolizes and recycles hormones, including estrogen, thyroid hormones, and phytoestrogens
Good bacteria are known to help prevent food allergies, decrease gas, bloating, indigestion, acne, eczema, psoriasis, bad breath, colds, flu, chronic fatigue and high cholesterol levels. This is because they properly break down the remaining nutrients of your foods, control the acidity (pH level) of the intestines, and secrete acids that less friendly microbes cannot tolerate well.
Unbalanced flora and disease
Almost 80% of your immune system is located in your large intestine. This means supporting your digestive health is essential to supporting your immune system, your number one defense system against all disease. If too many bad bacteria are present in your digestive tract, it can lead to imbalanced intestinal flora with disrupted or slowed digestion.
Slow digestion is like leaving food lying around in a dark, damp, warm germ-infested tube for a day or more. Bad bacteria gladly assimilate anything that you are slow to digest and spews their excretions into your intestine. These toxins can prevent good bacteria from growing, and can provide a comfortably toxic environment that permits other bad bacteria to grow and thrive.
Supporting healthy bacteria
We can support our healthy bacteria by feeding it living microorganisms that, once ingested, will directly become our healthy flora (probiotics), or by consuming non-digestible food that selectively stimulates the growth of “good” bacteria (prebiotics).
Probiotics can be found in foods with lactobacillus and/or bifidobacteria like yogurt, butter, milk, goat’s milk, coconut water, and soy milk products. These good bacteria also grow naturally in fermented milk, kefir, natto, miso, kimchee, tempeh, and sauerkraut.
As mentioned, prebiotics stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria. But healthy bacteria need to be in the gut before they can be stimulated to grow. Start off with probiotic sources to build up the good guys and then support growth by consuming sources of prebiotics such as dandelion greens, spinach, kale, artichokes, legumes, onions, leeks, garlic, oatmeal, flaxseed, barley, and soy yogurt.
What you eat and your level of stress have a huge impact on the balance of bacteria in your gut. Incorporating foods that will build and grow your flora while supporting a balanced state of mind through yoga, meditation, breathing techniques, and smiling, will ensure that you’re building and supporting healthy flora for years to come.
Do you supplement your diet with probiotics? If so, what’s your routine?