Bacteria. We spend most of our time fighting it; sanitising kitchens, sterilising bathrooms and disinfecting door handles. It’s gross right? Well, actually no, not always. Inside of our bodies, billions of bacteria are working away right now to keep us happy and healthy without us even realising.
Your 'Inner Ecosystem'
Most people can name the main organs such as the brain, heart, lungs, liver and kidneys; but how many people are familiar with the “inner ecosystem” of microflora (or microbiota) that is contained within our gut? This complex network of microbes – our microbiome – is thought to outnumber the rest of the cells in our body by 10 to 1 and is working constantly to keep our tummies trouble-free.
Science suggests that a microbiome begins to develop before we are even born and continues to change throughout our lives, for better or worse, depending on our lifestyle habits. Research has now shown that negative changes to our gut microflora can directly impact the health of not just our digestive system but pretty much our entire body system; resulting in short and long term conditions, from a simple stomach ache to serious life-threatening illnesses.
Keep it Balanced
Gut microflora plays a crucial role in the way our body breaks down the food we eat, which in turn gets stored as fat, alters our blood sugar levels and even changes the way our body reacts to hormones. More recent tests have shown that the more diverse our gut microflora is, the better equipped we are at fighting serious conditions such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. This unholy trinity, also known as ‘metabolic syndrome’ can lead to further – sometimes fatal – maladies such as coronary heart disease and stroke.
An imbalance of gut microflora (dysbiosis) can lead to a belly full of gastrointestinal complaints such as irritable bowel disorder, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and abnormally high levels of Helicobacter pylori. This level 1 carcinogen (according to the World Health Organisation) can lead to gastritis, peptic ulcers and stomach cancer. Dysbiosis of gut microflora has also shown correlation with kidney and liver disease, sleep disorders, migraines and autism.
Friendly Bacteria and Fibres
So what can we do to make sure that our gut microflora stays vast and varied? Friendly bacteria are one of the types of ‘good bacteria’ that our gut needs to control the ‘bad bacteria’. Fermented foods such as pickled cabbage (kimchi, sauerkraut), miso soup, certain cheeses (cottage cheese, Gouda, Parmesan) and sourdough bread all offer a natural dose of friendly bacteria, as do live-cultured yoghurt and Kefir; both of which contain the gut-friendly bacteria: lactobacillus and bifidobacteria.
Your diet should also include fibres, which are carbohydrates that fuel the friendly bacteria and can be found in legumes (lentils, chickpeas, soybeans), oatmeal and certain vegetables (Jerusalem artichoke, asparagus).
In addition to the above dietary changes, there are certain supplements that you can take for the benefit of your gut microflora:
As well as being essential for healthy teeth and bones (through maintaining levels of calcium in the blood), a vitamin D supplement is recommended to improve the balance of your gut microflora. Vitamin D deficiency – alongside a diet that is unhealthily high in fat - has been linked to the above mentioned metabolic syndrome, a leading cause of heart disease and stroke. While vitamin D can be obtained naturally from sunlight, this method is not without its own risks (sunburn, melanoma, skin cancer), not to mention that in colder climates it would be almost impossible to achieve the recommended levels throughout the year. For this reason, a high-quality vitamin D supplement from a reputable nutrition company is best advised.
It may sound like a spell from Harry Potter but lactobacillus acidophilus really has magic powers when it comes to the health of your gut microflora. One of the friendliest bacteria, lactobacillus acidophilus can be found naturally in live yoghurt but can also be taken as a supplement to help alleviate the symptoms of diarrhoea, yeast infections and urinary tract infections. It also helps to provide a barrier against the very nasty Helicobacter pylori, which can lead to irritable bowel disorder, Crohn’s disease and even some types of cancer. In fact, lactobacillus acidophilus really is a supplement superhero as it has also been effectively used in the treatment of high cholesterol, Lyme disease, lactose intolerance plus skin conditions such as acne, eczema, blisters, canker sores and hives.
You don’t need to be a scientist to know that there aren’t many problems that can’t be solved by a good cup of tea. But we’re not talking PG Tips. Green tea has been used for centuries in Chinese and Indian medicine, and modern research cannot argue with this ancient prescription. The “free radical scavenging” properties of the polyphenols found in green tea help to clean up our system from the inside out, with research showing that regularly drinking green tea can prevent, treat or alleviate all manner of conditions and illnesses including diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, high cholesterol, breast cancer, stomach cancer, bladder cancer and liver disease. Green tea is an acquired taste, however, so if you’re more ‘milk and two sugars’, look for green tea tablets instead.
Listen to your Gut
Gut microflora has been described by scientists as the body’s “forgotten organ”, but you should make it your job to remember the above if you want a happy and healthy tummy. Just as we spray, wipe and scrub our homes, cars and workspaces to get rid of harmful bacteria; we should also be looking at ways to fuel the friendly bacteria inside of us. There are plenty of simple - sometimes delicious - ways we can lend a helping hand to our inner ecosystem. When grocery shopping, add some natural fibres to your basket and take the time to source some good quality supplements such as vitamin D, green tea and lactobacillus acidophilus. And next time your stomach grumbles, it could be saying ‘thank you’.