We’re all abuzz about gut microorganisms these days. We’ve come to appreciate the many benefits that all those little bugs living in our intestines provide for our health. They help us digest food, make vitamins, bolster our immune system, control our weight, and kill off bad bugs which can harm us. Unfortunately, scientists have observed that many of us have microflora lacking in diversity, and suggest that this may contribute to observed increases in obesity and chronic disease.
A number of factors are likely responsible for the decline in the health of our microflora, including overuse of antibiotics, but the food we eat clearly plays a large role in determining the type and number of bacteria inhabiting our digestive tracts. The typical Western diet, high in processed foods and animal products, and low in dietary fiber is associated with a less diverse group of bacteria. Fiber plays a critical role by providing “microbiota accessible carbohydrates” or MACs, on which healthy bacteria flourish. In fact, whole grains and other fiber sources are known as “prebiotics”. Without this dietary fiber, healthy bacteria lack the nutrients they need to make the byproducts important to our health. Many people get inadequate fiber as they avoid the carbohydrate foods which contain them due to an unwarranted concern that they are less healthy than protein foods. In addition to allowing us to maintain a diverse group of gut bacteria, whole grains, fruits and vegetables provide energy, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, and are a natural way to restore gut health.
Probiotics can also be used as a source of healthy bacteria. Yogurt with live cultures, for example, is teeming with lactobacillus and bifidobacteria which populate a healthy gut. Other food sources are fermented foods such as sauerkraut, miso soup, and sourdough bread. Probiotic supplements may also effectively replenish healthy bacteria. The past decade has seen enormous growth in the sale of bottles containing capsules teeming with live organisms as consumers hope to improve their gut health as well as strengthen their immune systems. Before tossing these jars into your shopping carts, though, be aware that these products vary widely in the type and number of organisms they provide.