The number and health of your gut flora affect almost every other aspect of your health. Photo by Getty Images/royaltystockphoto
Much of the messaging about how to promote better gut health — which affects everything from nutrient absorption to cognitive function — focuses on the importance of prebiotics and probiotics. Yet how these supplements work as part of our diets remains unexplained. Prebiotic foods feed the microflora in the human gut. Typically, these are foods full of dietary fiber and low in sugar and fat. On the other hand, probiotic foods and supplements that contain live microbes are meant to help the number and diversity of gut flora to flourish.
Many of the communities of microbes that help us extract energy and nutrients from foods can only grow under specific conditions inside the small intestine, which makes matching particular microbes to their digestive tasks challenging. In addition, the interactions between different species and strains of bacteria are often as relevant as any individual bacteria’s contribution to our overall health. We know that the food we eat directly affects the balance of bacteria in our guts, and that diets high in fiber and low in sugar and fat tend to make us feel better overall. Many people who incorporate fermented probiotic-rich foods into their diets report higher energy levels, reduced pain, and clearer thoughts. Our gut flora, the onboard dietary consultants for our health, prefer these types of foods. By keeping them supplied with the right materials, we can reduce gut inflammation, limit the deleterious effects of toxins, and support our immune systems.
Gut flora are even involved in creating and sending neurotransmitters, such as GABA, throughout your body. Photo by Getty Images/Artystarty
Detrimental bacteria cause inflammation through various forms of biological irritation, which includes the release of metabolic byproducts that our bodies recognize as toxins. Some strains of beneficial bacteria can process toxins themselves, releasing new byproducts that are no longer toxic to us; others “adsorb” toxins, or bind them to their own cell walls, preventing the toxins from traveling further through our systems. Probiotics can also stimulate more activity from immune-system cells, which helps the body find and destroy pathogenic microbes before they can make us sick.
Fermented foods are often the main source of probiotics in our diets. Could it be that we’re supplementing our gut flora directly by adding new populations of microbes to our systems? Despite some promising initial results from peer-reviewed studies, little concrete evidence exists to prove that consuming probiotic-loaded foods or taking supplements with live microbes will make a measurable difference in the population or diversity of your gut flora. However, these foods are likely to nourish the existing desirable microbes in your gut, which are responsible for numerous functions. The more you can promote beneficial microbial growth, the better you’ll tend to feel. Healthy, active gut microflora can even alter anxious and depressive tendencies, or modulate pain responses. For example, some species of Lactobacillus convert glutamate, a neural activator molecule, into GABA, a neurotransmitter that appears to play a role in pain inhibition.
We may not currently know with certainty the full picture of how pre- and probiotics affect our gut flora, but in the meantime, keep piling fermented pickles on your plate, and wash them down with a glass of kvass.