By Dr. Mercola
Research indicates that supplementing with probiotics (good bacteria) is probably more important than taking a multivitamin, and this is due to the profound role gut bacteria play in your health.
Many are not aware that the microbes in your gut influence far more than your digestion -- their influence extends to your brain, your heart, your skin, your mood, your weight … and the list goes on and on.
In many ways, your health is rooted in your gut bacteria, both in terms of maintaining emotional and physical wellness and preventing chronic disease.
New Link Shows Gut Bacteria Plays Role in Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, degenerative disease of the nerves in your brain and spinal column, caused through an immune-mediated demyelination process.
Myelin is the insulating, waxy substance around the nerves in your central nervous system, and when the myelin is damaged by an autoimmune disease or similarly destructive process in your body, then the function of those nerves deteriorate over time.
Some examples of possible triggers for autoimmune demyelination include food intolerances, e.g. wheat and cow's milk proteins, infectious challenges, chemical exposures and vaccinations.
Even though it may seem strange that microbes in your digestive tract could influence a disease of your brain and spinal column, research now clearly shows gut bacteria do play a vital role.
In mice bred to develop a disease similar to multiple sclerosis, those raised in an environment with no bacteria did not develop symptoms. But a new study found that once typical gut bacteria were introduced, the mice began to show signs of multiple sclerosis.
So it appears the bacteria in your gut may play a role in triggering autoimmune demyelination as well as influence your immune system's inflammatory response. If researchers can identify specific microbes that may trigger symptoms, this means that one day alterations to your microbial community may be able to slow, stop and even reverse the progression of the disease.
Are "Fecal Transplants" the Wave of the Future?
There are many ways to improve the makeup of bacteria in your gut, and I'll outline those below, but one novel solution, the fecal transplant, is proving to be incredibly effective.
It may sound disgusting, but fecal microbiota transplant (FMT) is actually very simple. It involves taking donor feces (the donor is typically a spouse or relative) and basically transferring it to the patient during a colonoscopy. The benefit? The patient receives a transplanted population of healthy flora that can go to work correcting any number of gastrointestinal and other health problems.
Dr. Mark Mellow, medical director of the Digestive Health Center at Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, presented research at the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) annual meeting in Washington, D.C. that found fecal transplants led to rapid resolution of symptoms in 98 percent of patients with Clostridium difficile (who hadn't responded to multiple previous treatments) -- an infection that is often resistant to antibiotics, is often debilitating, and can be fatal.
Separate research found the transplants showed promise in the treatment of Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, with symptoms improving in days to weeks. And preliminary research from the Netherlands even found that transplanting fecal matter from healthy thin people into obese people with metabolic syndrome led to an improvement in insulin sensitivity, which adds further credence to the immense role healthy gut bacteria can play in your health.
New Study Shows This Natural Approach Eases Gut Problems
Research into probiotics, along with a host of other microorganisms, is exploding as we speak. Still more research presented at the ACG annual meeting, this time by researchers at the University College Cork in Ireland, showed that people with inflammatory conditions such as ulcerative colitis, chronic fatigue syndrome or psoriasis who took the probiotic bacteria Bifidobacterium infantis for eight weeks had lower levels of inflammation than those taking a placebo.
The simple strategy appeared to lower levels of inflammation among a wide variety of conditions, and past research has even found that treating gastrointestinal inflammation may help improve depression and related diseases.
As Gregor Reid, a microbiologists at the University of Western Ontario, told MSNBC:
"I don't think there's anything that bacteria can't do, just about. We are essentially walking bacterial bodies. They're affecting everything that we do."
Probiotics Compared to a "Newly Recognized Organ"
Probiotics are so crucial to your health that researchers have compared them to "a newly recognized organ," and have even suggested we consider ourselves a type of "meta-organism" -- in acknowledgment of the fact that we cannot be whole and healthy without the participation of a vast array of friendly bacterial species and strains.
If you want to dig into the research for yourself, check out the Human Microbiome Project (HMP), whose goal is to characterize microbial communities found at multiple human body sites and to look for correlations between changes in the microbiome and human health. There you can find 15 demonstration projects looking into the role of microflora and conditions like psoriasis, Crohn's disease, obesity, acne and more.
You can also visit Green Med Info, which has assembled an amazing list of more than 200 studies, which together explore more than 170 diseases that may find relief with probiotics. Some of the most interesting research to date includes studies linking your gut bacteria to:
- Behavior: A study published in Neurogastroenterology & Motility found mice that lack gut bacteria were found to behave differently from normal mice, engaging in what would be referred to as "high-risk behavior." This altered behavior was accompanied by neurochemical changes in the mouse brain. Researchers stated:
Bacteria colonize the gut in the days following birth, during a sensitive period of brain development, and apparently influence behavior by inducing changes in the expression of certain genes.
- Gene Expression: As noted above, researchers also discovered that the absence or presence of gut microorganisms during infancy permanently alters gene expression.
Through gene profiling, they were able to discern that absence of gut bacteria altered genes and signaling pathways involved in learning, memory, and motor control. This suggests that gut bacteria are closely tied to early brain development and subsequent behavior. These behavioral changes could be reversed as long as the mice were exposed to normal microorganisms early in life. But once the germ-free mice had reached adulthood, colonizing them with bacteria did not influence their behavior.
In a similar way, probiotics have also been found to influence the activity of hundreds of your genes, helping them to express in a positive, health-promoting manner.
- Diabetes: Bacterial populations in the gut of diabetics differ from non-diabetics, according to a study from Denmark. In particular, diabetics had fewer Firmicutes and more plentiful amounts of Bacteroidetes and Proteobacteria, compared to non-diabetics. The study also found a positive correlation for the ratios of Bacteroidetes to Firmicutes and reduced glucose tolerance. LINE SPACE Researchers concluded:
The results of this study indicate that type 2 diabetes in humans is associated with compositional changes in intestinal microbiota.
- Autism: Establishment of normal gut flora in the first 20 days or so of life plays a crucial role in appropriate maturation of your baby's immune system. Hence, babies who develop abnormal gut flora are left with compromised immune systems and are particularly at risk for developing such disorders as ADHD, learning disabilities and autism -- particularly if they are vaccinated before restoring balance to their gut flora.
To get a solid understanding of just how this connection works, I highly recommend reviewing the information shared by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride in this recent interview.
- Obesity: The make-up of gut bacteria tends to differ in lean vs. obese people. This is one of the compelling areas of probiotic research to date, and you can read about a handful of such studies here.
The bottom line: restoring your gut flora should be an important consideration if you're struggling to lose weight, and doing this is straightforward, as I'll describe below.
How to Harness Your Gut Bacteria for Better Health
Do you suffer from gas and bloating? Constipation or diarrhea? Fatigue? Headaches? Sugar cravings? All of these are signs that unhealthy bacteria have taken over too much real estate in your gut, which is actually quite common considering how vulnerable your gut bacteria are to environmental insults.
Your lifestyle can and does influence your gut flora on a daily basis, and your gut bacteria are extremely sensitive to:
- Chlorinated water
- Antibacterial soap
- Agricultural chemicals
Poor diet is another enemy to healthy gut bacteria, as eating sugar actually nourishes the bad or pathogenic bacteria yeast and fungi in your gut (which may actually do more harm than elevated blood sugar and insulin resistance).
One of the major side benefits of eating a healthy diet like the one described in my nutrition plan is that it helps the beneficial gut bacteria flourish, which results in the real "magic" of restoring your health.
Eating fermented food will also help you to "reseed" your body with good bacteria. If you do not regularly consume the traditionally fermented foods below, a high-quality probiotic supplement will provide similar benefits:
- Lassi (an Indian yoghurt drink, traditionally enjoyed before dinner)
- Fermented milk, such as kefir (a quart of unpasteurized kefir has far more active bacteria than you can possibly purchase in any probiotics supplement)
- Various pickled fermentations of cabbage, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash and carrots
- Natto (fermented soy)
When choosing fermented foods, steer clear of pasteurized versions, as pasteurization will destroy many of the naturally occurring probiotics.
This includes most of the "probiotic" yogurts you find in every grocery store these days; since they're pasteurized, they will be associated with all of the problems of pasteurized milk products and they typically contain added sugars, high fructose corn syrup, artificial coloring, or artificial sweeteners, all of which will only worsen your health.
While I do not generally advocate taking a lot of supplements, a high-quality probiotic is an exception, especially if you do not consume traditionally fermented foods on a regular basis. I recommend looking for a probiotic supplement that fulfills the following criteria, to ensure quality and efficacy:
- The bacteria strains in the product must be able to survive your stomach acid and bile, so that they reach your intestines alive in adequate numbers.
- The bacteria strains must have confirmed health-promoting features.
- The probiotic activity must be guaranteed throughout the entire production process, storage period and shelf life of the product.
Tending to the bacteria in your gut is an ongoing process, much like tending to a flower garden. Provided with the proper nourishment -- fermented foods, a high-quality probiotic supplement, and avoidance of antibiotics and other environmental assaults -- your gut bacteria will flourish and reward you exponentially in the form of good health.