Deep inside our intestines, there’s a complex microbial ecosystem, known as the “gut flora” which we now know contains nearly a thousand species of bacteria which may affect our overall health in unimaginable ways!
It has long been recognized that our gastrointestinal system relies heavily on these gut flora or “good bacteria”. They exert a pronounced effect on the nutrients and energy that get pulled out of food. In fact, these bacteria are thought to play a big role in a slew of health conditions, including combating obesity, diabetes, infections, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, high cholesterol, and even colon cancer. There are many theories as to how these bacteria confer their positive benefits such as an anti-inflammatory effect for the body, increased immunity and therefore healing power after an infection, and even the power to fight off potential cancer cells in a microenvironment by competing for the same nutrients.
At first glance, this concept may seem counter-intuitive and perhaps even downright strange. After all, from a very young age, we are trained to think of bacteria as creepy, crawly invisible things which can and will make us sick. Nevertheless, after the discovery of the phenomenon of “good bacteria” in the gastrointestinal system in the beginning of the 20th century, scientists began to explore the idea of harvesting these bacteria, manufacturing them as pharmaceuticals and actually introducing them into our body’s system in the form of pills, capsules, and powders entitled “probiotics” with very promising results. Today, the World Health Organization defines probiotics as “Live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”.
Our gut microbes have recently drawn the interest of heavy hitters like the National Institutes of Health, which launched the Human Microbiome Project in 2008. The bacterial cells in or on the average person outnumber human cells 10 to 1! This presents us with a huge target base for medical intervention which may yield infinite positive results if used correctly. The question now becomes if it’s possible to change your gut ecosystem to improve your health through probiotics, and what interaction exists between genetics, the gut flora and diet which may be manipulated to enhance overall health.
So What’s In It For Me?
Of course, now we know that many probiotic foods are actually produced by the action of lactic acid bacteria, yeasts or a combination of both. These invisible microorganisms break down sugars and carbohydrates in the foods and make them more digestible and more nutritious for us.
Is there sufficient data to recommend the addition of probiotics to one’s normal regimen (as is done with vitamins for example)? Although there is little downside except for the cost issue, at this point there is not enough data to insist on the routine use of probiotics for otherwise healthy individuals. People who suffer from chronic gastrointestinal diseases, have undergone recent surgery, or are in need of chronic antibiotics use, may certainly benefit from a probiotic regimen and should discuss the matter with their physicians.
The specific type of probiotics used has not been shown to make a major difference. It’s also interesting to note that some elements of our normal diet such as many yogurts, pickled vegetables, sauerkraut and soy sauce contain a significant amount of probiotics which may be sufficient in most cases.
Since the lactobacillus bacteria found in each probiotic food are not the same, plus the fact that every bacterium plays a different role in the body, it’s a good idea to include a variety of naturally fermented foods in our diet.
Dr. Rabin Rahmani is the newest addition to the Brooklyn Gastroenterology and Endoscopy Associates and the Greater New York Endoscopy Surgical Center. You can learn more about Dr. Rahmani here:http://nygicare.com/physicians/rabin-rahmani
Our Brooklyn office provides a multidisciplinary approach to the treatments of gastrointestinal disease. Our board-certified gastroenterologists, who have worked together for many years, provide ranging from all gastroenterology procedures to the treatment of hepatitis and Crohn’s Disease.