When the word bacteria is mentioned, I would imagine that for many of us, things like Clorox wipes, Soft Soap and trash bags come to mind. Although the word may have a generally negative connotation, bacteria can go both ways, just like people. Meet your intestinal microbiota. This term microbiota refers to the good bacteria or probiotics that live inside the body and help to keep you healthy. When we eat foods that contain these probiotics, they inhabit our digestive tract and perform many functions to help with digestion, processing of nutrients and the body’s immune defense against pathogens.
What exactly do these ‘good’ bacteria do?
Our bodies are exposed to pathogens countless times throughout the day; one major source for these potentially harmful microorganisms is in the substances that we ingest. Sometimes the food we eat contains potentially harmful bacteria, fungus or other pathogenic substances. As a part of the mucosal barrier in the intestines, the microbiota functions in the first level of immune defense against these substances. They recognize and signal the immune system to initiate an inflammatory response in order to defend and rid the body of the pathogenic cell. In turn the microbiota also initiates an anti-inflammatory response once the pathogenic material has been rid of in order to restore the gut environment back to normal. Failure of this anti-inflammatory action to occur could play a role in development of certain conditions like IBD or IBS.
The microbiota also helps the body to digest the foods we eat, absorb some of the nutrients from those foods as well as promote digestive regularity. Some gut bacteria help to produce essential B vitamins such as vitamin B12, folate, vitamin B6, biotin, niacin, and thiamin which are needed for proper carbohydrate metabolism. These bacteria also help to synthesize vitamin K which is important in proper coagulation and clotting of the blood. The fiber in certain cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, brussel sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli is digested and fermented as a fuel source for the gut bacteria. When the bacteria digest the fiber from these foods, it leads to an end product of short-chain fatty acids, which also help to regulate inflammation in the gut. These short chain fatty acids help to regulate intestinal acid-base balance, fat, carbohydrate and cholesterol metabolism . This is one of the many reasons why consuming vegetables is such a crucial component to a healthy diet and a happy digestive system.
How does this affect your health?
Probiotics are especially noted for their role in gut health, this can be especially beneficial in those experiencing consistent symptoms of constipation or digestive discomfort or those who battle certain digestive diseases and may help to reduce symptoms of gas and bloating as well. For those who participate in regular, intense and/or long-duration exercise, the gastrointestinal lining can get irritated and thus lead to non-desirable symptoms such as diarrhea, bloating, cramping and pain. Consuming probiotics can help to significantly reduce the amount of symptoms experienced, especially for those who are prone to these issues.
In addition to a happier digestive system, probiotics are a key player in a healthy immune system. A flourishing microbiota could help to reduce the duration or number of occurrences of certain illnesses. This immune-enhancing effect could be particularly useful for athletes and highly active folks under rigorous training. The effect of a high training load can damper the effectiveness of the immune system and leave one more vulnerable to upper respiratory illness. Supplementation with probiotics or regular consumption of food sources of probiotics could help to reduce the incidence and duration of upper respiratory illness symptoms, especially if you are one who has a tendency to experience illness when under training.
So where do you get them?
Two ways. Either by consuming a probiotic supplement (usually in capsule or powder form) or certain foods. Yogurt is the most recognizable source for most of us, but you can get some
probiotics from other dairy products as well. Another source is Kefir, or fermented milk. This is usually found in multiple flavors with the other dairy products and is a slightly more acidic, thicker substance than milk. Pickled, fermented vegetables, such as Kimchi, a Korean spicy blend of vegetables and spices, or Sauerkraut, can provide another source for gut healthy bacteria. Fermented soy products like tempeh, miso and natto are sources as well. Both tempeh and natto also offer the benefit of being good vegetarian protein sources. Double whammy with these foods. Lastly, beverages and tea blends made from kombucha mushrooms can be another good source of probiotics. I’ve grown fond of several varieties of these which are found in the refrigerated juice section of many grocery stores and health food stores. Tangy and effervescent in taste they are quite a refreshing treat on a hot afternoon or not a bad replacement for a soda craving! You can also find some tea blends containing kombucha in the tea section of your local market.
Like all nutrients, whole foods are best when trying to increase your probiotic consumption. However, if supplementation is more sensible or is of interest to you, work with your doctor and local dietitian to determine if probiotic supplementation would be appropriate and if so what variety would work best for you.
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