The key to better health could lie in bacteria in your gut.
If you’ve ever suffered a bout of food poisoning, you know ingesting the wrong bacteria can wreak havoc on your gut. But not all microbes are bad.
In fact, about 100 trillion bacteria from an estimated 5,000 species live peacefully in or on you—that’s 10 times the number of human cells in your body. “The human microbiome is all of the bacteria within us,” says Kevin Dodd, MD, Medical Director of Gastroenterology at HealthAlliance, a member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth).But most of these bacteria occupy your gastrointestinal tract.
Bacteria are an integral part of your immune system and metabolism. They help you digest food, shore up your stomach and intestinal lining and even protect against other disease-causing bacteria.
“The human microbiome is a very complex set of bacteria that we don’t know a lot about,” says Dr. Dodd. “But through research we’re learning how certain conditions are affected by it, and how we treat them more effectively.”
For example, the intestinal infection C. difficile is often resistant to treatment. But now doctors can treat it by transplanting fecal matter from a healthy donor into a sick person, usually through a colonoscopy or enema. “This helps restore the diversity of bacteria in the gut and can eliminate the illness-causing bug,” says Dr. Dodd.
Maintaining Gut Health
Maintaining this diverse population of beneficial bacteria not only protects your digestive tract, it also can impact serious conditions, including:
- Digestive diseases
- Heart disease
- Obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic conditions
- Colorectal, gastric, and other cancers
- Anxiety and depression
But many habits already recognized as healthy can boost gut health. For instance, eating a consistently healthy diet (think more fruits, vegetables and fiber and less fat and sugar) helps to better maintain your gut bacteria.
You should also use discretion with antibiotics. These powerful medications wipe out beneficial bacteria in addition to harmful pathogens. If your doctor recommends antibiotics for a bacterial infection, take them exactly as directed—finish the course of treatment, and don’t share prescriptions.
Replenish with Probiotics
Another option is probiotics – “good” microorganisms similar to natural gut bacteria that typically come in pill form or can be found in fermented foods like yogurt, soft cheeses or kefir.
“Yogurts like Activia are made to have more “good” bacteria like Lactobacillus bulgaricus and bifidobacteria, but they don’t contain as much as you’d find in a probiotic capsule,” says Dr. Dodd. “Yogurt also contains lactose, which further irritates the gut, so we usually recommend a probiotic capsule over yogurt.”
Dr. Dodd has seen great success with probiotics after a course of antibiotics and in patients with irritable bowel syndrome who experience gas and bloating.
But probiotics aren’t for everyone. “I don’t discourage it, but a healthy, active person who is eating well doesn’t really need to take probiotics,” says Dr. Dodd. “Consult with your doctor first, especially if you’re experiencing abdominal symptoms to make sure nothing serious is going on.”