Supporting digestion: 4 ways to help gut bacteria thrive

July 1, 2014

Probiotics—it’s a term you probably recognize and associate with cups of yogurt—but what exactly does it mean? How do probiotics help you maintain your digestive health?

In layman’s terms, probiotics are microorganisms—usually strains of bacteria—normally present in fermented foods that help promote a healthy gastrointestinal (GI) tract. There are trillions of microbes living in our digestive system, producing compounds that support our overall health. Like these microbes—collectively referred to as the microbiota—probiotics help us digest food, produce chemicals and perform other functions that benefit us. Unlike our inherent gut microbiota, probiotics may not stably colonize our GI tract, so their benefits are likely temporary.

“Microbiota—the community of organisms present throughout our body, and in our digestive systems—are all the symbiotic microbes that have coevolved with us,” states Robert C. Alaniz, PhD, assistant professor at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. Alaniz, director of the newly established Center for Integrated Microbiota Research (CIMR) at Texas A&M University, is conducting extensive research on the beneficial compounds produced by gut bacteria with Arul Jayaraman, PhD, a professor at Texas A&M’s College of Engineering.

These natural compounds in our GI tract help prevent chronic inflammation and obesity, keeping potentially fatal bacterial spores from germinating within our body and much more. So what can you do to support your microbiota and their natural compounds that help your digestive system thrive?

Alaniz provides the following suggestions on how to support your gut microbiota:

Photo of a red apple being washed in sink.

Diets rich in fruits and vegetables help your microbiota thrive and produce beneficial chemical compounds.

1.    Eat your vegetables

Although we cannot digest fiber, our microbiota can. Fiber is food for our gut bacteria, and the compounds they produce from metabolizing fiber are beneficial to us. Eating healthy, fiber-rich foods supports our microbiota and allows them to produce short-chain fatty acids, which provide us with energy and promotes digestive health.

In combination with a healthy diet, avoid greasy, fatty foods. Diets rich in vegetables and fruits allow healthy gut bacteria to thrive, but excessively fatty foods will have the opposite effect. A poor diet may also prevent your microbiota from producing the chemicals that benefit your overall health.

2.    Don’t be so germaphobic

Of course, you should wash your hands after sneezing or cooking with raw chicken, but not washing your hands after touching a doorknob or the floor could actually be beneficial. Over the course of millions of years, our immune system has evolved to accept our microbiota and fight off infectious diseases. “Hyper-hygiene” may actually impair our immune system; without pathogens to target, our immune system can begin to attack our microbiota and our own tissues.

While hygiene is certainly important, try not to overcompensate. By being exposed to bacteria and other pathogens, we are allowing our immune system to do its job and preventing it from attacking the healthy bacteria in our GI tract.

3.    Don’t overuse antibiotics

Consult with your physician and don’t panic if you are not given a prescription for every illness—it can actually be a positive thing to allow your body to naturally fight off some infectious diseases. This will help bolster your immune system and will keep your microbiota balanced so they can better support your health.

With the advent of modern science, antibiotics have become commonly prescribed, but are not always the best option for treating all ailments. Of course, you should follow the instructions of your physician, but keep in mind that overuse of antibiotics is detrimental to our digestive health because the antibiotics attack the beneficial bacteria in our GI tract and other body sites. “Every time antibiotics are used, it impacts our microbiota,” states Alaniz.

4.    Take your probiotics

Probiotics, in addition with a healthy diet, promote digestive health. By consuming probiotics, you can help maintain a balanced microbiota that may produce more chemical compounds to benefit you.

Foods that usually contain probiotics are fermented dairy products, such as yogurt and kefir. But if yogurt isn’t your thing, fermented cabbage products, like sauerkraut and kimchi, also contain strains of probiotics. Probiotic supplements can also be used, but with the limitation that they don’t contain the complex nutrients found in many food forms.

Introducing probiotics into your regular diet is reported to be beneficial overall and may help you reduce the severity of chronic diseases like inflammation and type 2 diabetes, allowing you to sustain a healthy lifestyle.

— Elizabeth Grimm

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