While bacteria may be best known for causing sickness, it turns out they’re also vital to preventing it, and improving overall health and well-being. In fact, a normal healthy digestive system boasts an estimated 100 trillion microorganisms representing more than 500 different species—that’s our gut microbiome. Now, a growing body of research suggests that probiotics — commercially prepared beneficial bacteria—may help keep your microbiome healthy, boosting immunity and wellness, preventing traveler’s diarrhea, and helping you process antibiotics.
Gut bacteria break down the foods we eat into essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals that are then released into the body to provide energy. They also secrete substances that act as a defense system to protect the body from invasion of infections, as well as the insults of antibiotics and medications, poor dietary choices and exposure to environmental toxins.
Who wouldn’t want more beneficial bacteria circulating in their gut? Probiotic supplements may be the most common route to ingesting more healthful bacteria, but there’s a lot you can do to promote a healthy microbiome. Here’s how:
- Focus on whole foods. A whole-food, plant-based diet rich in vegetables and fiber-rich fruits (berries, apples, pears and plums) nourishes the growth and diversity of healthful gut bacteria. Swapping out the saturated and trans fats in your diet with healthier varieties, including omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish, nuts and seeds, as well as monounsaturated fats in foods like olives, olive oil and avocados, also supports healthy digestion.
- Avoid added sugar. Excess sugar in your diet can dramatically alter your bacterial balance. Within hours of eating foods that are high in added sugar (think soda, cereals, crackers and candy), the composition of your gut bacteria can transform from a healthy state to a breeding ground for a type of bacteria that thrives in a sugary environment. The new sugar-loving bacteria send messages to the brain telling you to eat more sugary foods. And the cycle continues. Unfortunately, low- and no-calorie artificial sweeteners are no better, since they also wreak havoc on healthy bacteria.
- Watch the meds. While they may be necessary to manage illness, overuse of some medications including antibiotics, anti-inflammatories (such as ibuprofen, like Advil and Motrin) and proton pump inhibitors (for heartburn) can decrease gut diversity. You should only take antibiotics if you have a bacterial infection, not for a viral illness like the flu, for example.
- Consider probiotic supplements. Probiotics are living organisms that, when consumed in high enough concentrations, can potentially have favorable effects on your gut flora (and your health). These commercially-processed organisms have antimicrobial effects that may help populate your gut with more healthy bacteria, crowding out the bad guys. Seek probiotics with multiple strains and higher concentrations (greater than 20 billion Colony Forming Units), and look for brands with certifications for Good Manufacturing Processes. Just keep in mind that over-the-counter probiotics are not regulated by an authoritative agency, so talk to your doctor before beginning any supplements.
- Amp up prebiotics. Prebiotics are non-digestible fiber-containing carbohydrates that act as food for the bacteria in your gut. Probiotics and prebiotics work together to help create a healthy microbiome. The best way to get them: Through your diet. Start with whole plant food like vegetables and fruits. You can also add fermented foods like Kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir. These foods contain both the live bacteria and the nutrients that feed them.
In addition to supporting gastrointestinal health, preventing and managing diseases ranging from infectious diarrhea to IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), some early, promising studies suggest probiotics and healthy prebiotic components may also protect against skin conditions, yeast infections and allergies.
This is a rapidly growing field of modern medicine that yields more scientific questions than answers. But it’s possible that in the future probiotics will be one important way to prevent and treat disease.
A final note on supplements: If you have a serious medical disease or weakened immune system, talk to your doctor before supplementing with probiotics.
Learn more about the functional medicine program at the Henry Ford Center for Integrative Medicine, which has locations providing a variety of services in Northville, Detroit and Grosse Pointe.