Diet and Probiotics for Gut Bacteria (September 30, 2014)
As I was saying not long ago, we still don’t know a whole lot about gut bacteria -- but we do know that there are loads of them, that they are of major importance, and that our callous and indifferent treatment of them is something that we should rectify, not just for optimum health but also for any kind of health at all.
What do they do anyway? Well, they are the source of at least a couple of vitamins, they process and assist in the metabolism of many carbohydrates and fats, they interact with and are vital in the proper functioning of the immune system (both in infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders), they are involved in genetic expression and in many diseases and risk factors for same, both acute and chronic. They influence brain function (and interestingly, the brain returns the favor). It's turning out that they are involved in every aspect of physiology and in inflammatory disorders, cancer and obesity. When you add up the amount of genetic material they contain, it’s about 100x the amount that an individual possesses – making them kind of a second, and very influential, genome.
Traditional Chinese medicine asserts that if you have a healthy digestion you can recover from any illness or disorder, and it looks like those old guys are right AGAIN.
If you’ve been ill and your digestion and/or elimination isn’t quite what it once was, almost certain it's your microbiome. Infection and disorders of all kinds can disturb them. So if you fall into any of the categories below, you might want to give the little fellows some attention.
Once you’ve decided to stop neglecting your fellow travelers, what should you do exactly? That’s a subject that’s up for scientific grabs right now and most of what is out there on it is opinion. But for sure what you eat has a big effect on which bacteria thrive and which do not. The good ones really like fiber. (And they hate artificial sweeteners, if you remember from last week. One of the problems with consuming large amounts of artificial sweeteners is that this results in the obliteration of the types of bacteria that help to properly maintain your weight.) So if your microbiome is still healthy, and more power to you if it is, a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables will help maintain that status quo. [If it is not healthy, you'll have to fix it with supplements first.]
Additionally, fermented food of some sort has a place in the diet of almost every human population (I wanted to make a "culture" joke here, but I couldn't manage it), and there should probably be a place for them in yours. These include yogurt, unpasteurized sauerkraut and kim chee, homemade kombucha tea, miso soup, kefir, and acidophilus milk.
Regarding supplemental probiotics. There are a number of prescription probiotics targeted for specific disorders. But that is not necessary for most people. A few common types of microbes make up the mass of the population of the gut, so your basic over-the-counter probiotic that has just a couple few of the most common strains is adequate for most people. They should be taken with a small amount of food (meaning neither on an empty stomach, nor with a meal). I’m not aware of any good third-party recommendations for specific brands – but if you ask, I’ll tell you what brand I recommend to my patients anyway.
Like chiropractic and acupuncture, probiotics are officially out of the Weird Alternative Treatment category now, so if your doctor mocks you for asking about them, find another doctor.
--dr. diane holmes
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