A balancing act of good and bad!
Life is a balancing act in so many ways and this also extends to the balance of life inside our gut. We are basically walking bacteria – we have 20% more bacteria in our body than our own living cells and within this bacterial colony there are hundreds, if not thousands, of different types. Balancing the ‘good’ with the ‘bad’ is important to our health but we need to ensure that the ‘good’ ones outnumber the ‘bad’ ones by about 85%.
Most of us are only really aware of the significance of ‘good’ or ‘friendly’ gut bacteria through the advertising campaigns for an array of odd shaped little pots of yoghurt which, when drunk, make you skip along the street full of energy. So why has the retail and the medical world suddenly woken up to the health benefits of consuming probiotics to maintain our gut bacteria, or to use the more scientific name, our intestinal microflora.
Our gut microflora are acquired at birth. The adult colonisation pattern of bacteria is initiated at weaning and is highly individualised, influenced by diet, age, health, socio-economic status and antibiotic usage.
Friends or foe!
There should be a harmonious coexistence between us and these gut microflora. They do many health promoting jobs for us such as:
- Supporting our immune system
- Assisting digestion, absorption and bowel motility.
- Synthesizing vitamins B and K
- Controlling intestinal acid levels
- Reducing bad cholesterol
- Synthesizing and supporting digestive enzymes
- Assisting in the adsorption of calcium and other minerals
Unfortunately not all bacteria are beneficial and when the ‘bad’ ones get a hold, health imbalances and disease can follow. However there is much that we can do through our diet to keep these bad little blighters at bay!
Top up the friendly ones!
Of the hundreds of strains of potentially beneficial bacteria, the lactic acid bacteria, Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria have been the most studied with proven health benefits.
Live or probiotic yoghurt is one of the most ready sources of these bacteria. It is made by fermenting milk with lactic acid bacteria. In most of the JRB weekly ingredient deliveries, yoghurt will be on the menu and we always send good quality organic probiotic yoghurt. Cooking with the yoghurt will kill off the bacteria but using it, as we so often do, as a dressing or dip is a great way of getting more of this healthy yoghurt into your diet. It is a particularly good way to encourage children to eat an unsweetened version too. Many fruit yoghurts might be ‘live’ but they contain high levels of sugar, so not so good!
Whilst yoghurt is the most familiar to us, other fermented foods such as sauerkraut, miso, naturally fermented pickles and blue cheese can be valuable as sources of probiotics.
Probiotic supplements are available too and can be useful, particularly after taking a course of antibiotics when a large number of bacteria are needed to replenish the gut.
Feed them well!
Some foods are known as prebiotics and they are the preferred fuel source for our beneficial bacteria. A diet rich in prebiotics is an excellent way of encouraging the growth of these friends. Prebiotic fibre, often known as FOS (fructooligosaccharide), is an insoluble fibre that is resistant to our digestive enzymes but gets broken down by our beneficial bacteria in our colon. FOS rich foods are:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Beans, peas, lentils
- Wholegrain wheat
Interestingly the foods which promote the growth of our non-beneficial ‘bad’ bacteria are high sugary, fatty foods. So a junk food diet is just what they love and should be avoided!
What’s the evidence?
There is a growing body of evidence to support the use of probiotics to promote the diversity of our beneficial gut microflora. Much of the evidence is from studies on animals and so more long-term studies are needed on humans. Research is, however, being advanced by studies such as the ‘US Human Microbiome Project’ and ‘European Metagenomics of the Human Intestinal Tract’.
The subject has caused controversy in some circles especially where manufacturers of functional foods containing pre- or pro-biotics are concerned. Some of their claims have been rejected and the question mark is often on how many bacteria remain once they have been subjected to stomach acid. Much of the research into the subject has been conducted by the yoghurt manufacturers who naturally have a vested interest in their brands and a positive outcome from their studies.
However there is convincing evidence to show that probiotics may help in the prevention and management of infections which is particularly encouraging in these days of concern over antibiotic resistance. There is also some evidence to suggest that probiotic supplementation may be helpful for people with ulcerative colitis and other inflammatory bowel disorders, those suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and those with digestive impairment such as lactose intolerance. Other areas of research showing probiotic potential are for allergic conditions, skin problems, cardiovascular health and wellness, dental health maintenance and even obesity.
Unfortunately the field of probiotics is very complex due to the diversity of bacterial strains and the difficulty in obtaining a complete understanding of individual gut ecosystems. However it is obvious that the balance and numbers of our microflora is vitally important in so many respects to our health therefore looking after these with a diet rich in fibrous vegetables and wholegrains and low in refined carbohydrates should be of paramount importance. At Jessica’s Recipe Bag we are passionate about providing a convenient way of helping you to achieve a balanced diet which is naturally high in those very foods that promote a healthy gut. Take care of the little things in life and the bigger things will take care of themselves!
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