Did you know that you are literally full of bacteria? It sounds squeamish but it's a good thing! I'm referring to your gut’s microbiome, something that is as unique to you as your fingerprint.
The human body has more than 100 trillion microorganisms living inside it, mainly in the digestive tract. Lumped together, they’d weigh about six pounds, as much as a newborn baby! These “beneficial” bacteria include as many as 1,000 species of which only a fraction are known to us. In fact, our human cells are outnumbered ten to one by the bacteria inside us.
Only a few strains of bacteria are known to cause disease. Having a good microbiome or a gut mapped out with healthy bacteria is essential for maintaining good health from many different aspects.
The past few decades of modernization and lifestyle changes have affected our natural microbiome in long lasting ways. In the old days, food would be eaten freshly prepared or subjected to fermentation to prolong shelf life. Now, frequent use of antibiotics, over-sanitization, refrigeration and pasteurization, high intake of sugary and processed foods, increased stress, etc. have all caused a depletion in our intake of natural probiotics as well as our existing microbiome. The advent of refrigeration helped preserve food longer and pasteurization helped kill unhealthy bacteria. Both of these aspects of modern life also served to reduce our intake of healthy bacteria.
Lack of exposure to healthy bacteria is thought to be one the causes of a rise in food allergies and autoimmune conditions in industrialized nations.
One way to strengthen our microbiome and introduce more strains of good bacteria is through the use of probiotics. Probiotics have been around for over 10,000 years as early as the ancient Egyptians using fermented milk to treat indigestion. Travel around the world and you will notice that most cultures consume some form of fermented food containing live cultures of healthy bacteria. Some commonly used examples of probiotic containing foods include homemade yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, tempe, miso, natto paste and unpasteurized apple cider vinegar. All are excellent sources of healthy probiotics.
Do you need a probiotic? If you raise your hand for any of the indications below, the answer is a resounding, Yes!
- Irregular bowel movements
- Antibiotic courses
- Poor immunity and frequent illness
- Allergic skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis
- Fluctuations in blood sugar with frequent cravings for sugary foods
Having a healthy gut microbiome is essential for many diverse processes throughout your body, not just for digestive health. Here are some of important ways in which your microbiome can affect your health:
75-80% of your immune system resides in the lining of your gut. Frequent antibiotic usage, high stress and processed foods will over time wear down a health microbiome. The gut microbiome is important for the development and maturation of the gut immune system, including gut-associated lymphoid tissue, and several lines of T cells and B cells. It helps to protect the intestine against colonization by harmful bacteria. Our gut associated immune system also produces antibodies which help protect us against viral infections.
Some bacterial strains that help boost general immunity include, Lactobacillus GG, Lactobacillus crispatus, Lactobacillus gasseri, Bifidobacterium bifidum and Bifidobacterium longum. Other probiotics strains such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and Saccharomyces boulardii are strongly recommended when using antibiotics and in traveler’s diarrhea- they can prevent damage to your microbiome (dysbiosis).
Mood and Mental Health
Your gut or intestinal tract is responsible for producing 95% of your serotonin requirement. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter in the brain and is called the “happy chemical” because of its profound impact on mood, sleep and feeling of well-being. The gut-brain connection is well established and demonstrates that it is a two-way connection. Emotional stress can trigger symptoms of indigestion (IBS, anyone?!) but poor gut health or a weakened gut microbiome can also induce feelings of lethargy, anxiety and depression.
Several probiotic strains have been shown to enhance serotonin production in the gut microbiome with beneficial effects on anxiety and depression when taken regularly. Even a 30 day course of daily mood-boosting probiotics has been shown to have mood stabilizing effects. These strains include, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacteria longum.
Preventing Autoimmune Disease
Alterations of healthy gut microbial communities from lifestyle, environment or other toxins can cause immune dysregulation, leading to autoimmune disorders. This is the primary reason that I recommend probiotics for my patients that suffer from autoimmune thyroid disease such as Hashimoto’s or Graves’.
The term ‘auto-immunity’ refers to the phenomenon where your immune system attacks your own tissue cells as if they were foreign pathogens. Probiotics can improve the function of the intestinal barrier by maintaining tight junctions between the cells of the intestinal lining. This prevents harmful bacteria in the gut from being exposed to the bloodstream, which can trigger the autoimmune response (leaky gut).
Yup, we want good bacteria down there as well! A healthy vagina requires a particular pH balance and a good microbiome. Any disruption to the pH balance or microbiome can predispose you to frequent UTI’s, BV or yeast infection. Remember that antibiotic courses for other indications can also damage the good bacteria in your genitourinary canal. Be sure to take a good quality probiotic when taking antibiotics if you don’t want to trade in one infection for a pesky yeast infection. Ugh! If you suffer from recurrent UTIs or BV, consider a 30-60 day course of daily women’s health probiotics which are specifically formulated for this part of your body.
Acne and Rashes
Probiotics for skin are sold in both topical as well as oral formulations. Topical probiotic skin care products help maintain the skin barrier and boost collagen. This helps to retain hydration and reduce dryness and wrinkly formation. They can also reduce inflammation in the skin which helps with acne. The oral forms of probiotics help clear skin ‘from the inside out’. Chronic skin inflammatory conditions such as psoriasis, eczema and rosacea are often linked to disruption in gut flora or autoimmune flare ups so taking a course of health gut probiotics helps reduce such skin rashes as well.
Blood Sugar and Metabolism
Several strains of probiotics such as Akkermansia muciniphila, Lactobacillus curvatus and Lactobacilus plantarum as well as some byproducts of fermented foods help lower insulin resistance. This can help improve fasting blood sugar levels, lower sugar cravings and boost metabolism. Many of the probiotics brands targeted for diabetes and metabolism also contain prebiotics or a type of soluble fiber that helps feed the good bacteria in the probiotics.
I hope I have given you some food for thought! I consider daily probiotics or naturally fermented foods to be a very important part of maintaining good gut health and a healthy immune system as well as so many other wide-reaching benefits.
Yours in good health,
Ashita Gupta, MD