Dr. Trushna Bhatt is an expert in food and nutrition. Here's her take on why intestinal bacteria are so important and the steps you can take to improve your gut health.
E. coli, H. pylori, bifidobacteria, lactobacilli — all these sound like names from a science fiction novel, don't they? Actually, these are some of the intestinal bacteria that may have made their homes in your gut for a long time, most of them since you were born!
The human body isn't only a mix of moving parts and complex functions, although even as recently as the 19th century it was thought of as a machine, like an engine or aeroplane. The discovery of microbes, however, led to the biggest shift in our understanding of health and disease. Doctors and researchers found that while some microorganisms are responsible for making us ill, some others are present in huge numbers in our bodies when we're in perfect health!
Discovering Intestinal Bacteria
Did you know that 99 percent of the bacteria in the human body are found in the gut? What's more, all these together can weigh up to 2–3 kg. Our healthy gut bacteria are present in us all the time! A lot of experiments have been done to study these bacteria in detail, but not many have been successful at demystifying them, mainly because gut bacteria are the most difficult to cultivate and study in labs. However, research shows that the collection of bacteria, called the microbiome, is as unique as your fingerprint and differs from person to person. Even genetically identical twins don't have identical microbiomes in their guts. So what exactly makes these bacteria so unique?
The first factor is genetic heritage. For example, the bacteria in the stomachs of Asians are different from those in the stomachs of Europeans. Then, there are birth conditions, including how you were born — if you were born as nature intended, your gut bacteria would begin forming after the first contact with the birth canal, but if you were born through a Cesarean section, the composition of your bacterial microbiome might be different.
Another vital factor that influences your gut bacteria (and other bacteria) is your environment in early life. If you played in the mud and had pets as a child, your microbiome is different from what it would be if your parents raised you in a super clean environment.
Why Gut Bacteria Matters
Certain types of bacteria are predominant in the human body. When classifying these bacteria, scientists put them into groups called families. The microbiome in humans is made up of three main families: Bacteroides, Prevotella and Ruminococcus. One family always dominates the scene, and these dynamics affect the way things happen in our body.
This microbiome influences how well we can digest certain foods. If you were born in Europe or North America, for example, you are more likely to have the genes and the bacteria that let you digest foods like red meat. Likewise, if you are born in Japan, you will be more likely to be able to digest seafood and soy products better. If someone born and brought up in Japan suddenly starts eating large quantities of red meat, they likely won't be able to digest it as well as someone from another region. Our reactions to food are likewise based on these factors.
Now here's another interesting fact that researchers have uncovered — our likelihood of weight loss or gain is also linked to our intestinal bacteria. In some people, bacteria extract more calories from the same food and the hormones that make us feel full are linked to the activity of the microbiome. It's too early to blame these tiny creatures for our weight gain, but we are on the path to understanding that our body's relationship with food is not as simple as we thought.
The microbiome influences other things, such as positive or negative reactions to medicine. And there is considerable evidence that links intestinal bacteria to mental illnesses. The hormones in our brains — the ones that control our emotions and actions — were initially thought to be restricted to the brain only. New research has shown that the gut is a source of some of these hormones, or at least of the substances that lead to the formation of these hormones in the body.
So, now that we know all this, how do we take steps to improve our gut health? Do we need expensive medications or complete changes in lifestyle? Thankfully, no.
Start Improving Your Gut Health Today
The latest research says simple dietary measures and a few lifestyle changes can start improving our gut health and, by extension, enhance our overall health. To start, avoid excessive antibiotic use. These bacteria-destroying superweapons are very helpful in case of infections, but they don't discriminate between the good and the bad. They kill helpful bacteria as well, causing an imbalance!
Another healthy habit that goes a long way in securing the health of the good bacteria is increasing the intake of yogurt and fermented foods that are sources of good bacteria. Add adequate sleep, a healthy diet with more natural than processed foods, some exercise, and there you have it — the way to a healthy gut and active life.
Disclaimer: This publication/editorial/article is meant for awareness/educational purposes and does not constitute or imply an endorsement, sponsorship or recommendation of any Products. Please consult your doctor/healthcare practitioner before starting any diet, medication or exercise.