What's bugging you?
Microorganisms that inhabit the human body, on the skin, in the gut, in the mouth, behind the ears, up the bum, just about everywhere - outnumber all other human cells by about 10 to 1. Because of their tiny size they only amount to about 3 percent of our total body mass, roughly 2kg for the average adult. Despite being miniscule, they contribute to the health status of every part of the body either directly or indirectly through their activity, so much so that the collective microbiome is increasingly viewed by scientists as an organ in its own right.
According to research from the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) in 2014, which is a collaborative research project involving more than 80 universities and scientific institutions from around the globe, there are more than 10,000 different species living inside us. This is the first time that researchers have mapped the quantity and species of microorganisms inhabiting the bodies of healthy humans. According to HMP Co-ordinator, James M. Anderson, M.D., Ph.D “We now have a very good idea of what is normal for a healthy Western population and are beginning to learn how changes in the microbiome correlate with physiology and disease.” The application of this research will be far-reaching – now that we understand what the normal human microbiome looks like, we should be able to understand how changes in the microbiome are associated with, or even cause, illnesses.
Probiotics is the collective term of beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms residing within the human microbiome. In the gut, they break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates in our diet into nutrients that we can then absorb. They produce valuable substances such as vitamins and anti-inflammatories that our body cannot produce. They are as important to us as we are to them for survival, yet as their host, we have underestimated their significance and treated them badly. Most probiotics enter the body through food – from handling and eating fresh, raw vegetables, from yogurts, buttermilk, fermented foods and in supplements. The modern diet and a hectic lifestyle challenges the survival of these bacteria, killing them off with disinfectants in food production, antibiotics, preservatives, junk food and chronic stress. Furthermore, the welcome they receive if and when they reach the gut is also paramount to ensuring they continue to multiply and colonize inside us to have a real impact on our health.
Taking Care of your "Guests"
This is where prebiotics come in to play. Prebiotics are a type of fibre from carbohydrates that many species of the good guys rely on for nourishment and survival. It is impossible to have a healthy colony of probiotics in your gut if you do not nourish them. Prebiotics have become a bit of a buzz word, the new health supplement, but in reality, prebiotics are plant fibres we can eat but do not digest. These fibres end up in the colon as dinner for the trillions of probiotics including the better known bifidobacteria and the lactobacillus family. Growing an effective army of probiotics within your microbiome involves feeding them and encouraging them to stay. The greater the welcome, the greater the number and diversity of bacteria which ultimately means greater health for you!
Fibre, Fibre, Fibre
Not all fibre is equal when it comes to prebiotics. Researchers have identified the ideal menu and it is random and for many of us, not quite what we would like to eat these days! Inulin, fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), betaglucans, resistant starch and pectin are just some of the fibres that send probiotics into seventh heaven! Jerusalem artichoke, chicory root, dandelion leaves are the richest sources of inulin, followed by garlic, onion and leeks. These are known to increase the number and variety of beneficial bacteria along the entire digestive tract. Oats, barley amd mushrooms are particularly rich in a fibre called betaglucans, boosting numbers and variety of bacteria in the gut, but also along the respiratory tract. Betaglucans have also been shown, in their own right, to have an anti-viral effect in the upper respiratory tract and are often used as supplements for colds and flu viruses. The synergy between betaglucan foods and the bacteria that responds to it provides a powerful double act against common respiratory viruses. Probiotics use pectin, found in apples, to produce a short chain fatty acid called butyric acid which improves the health of the intestinal lining in which they reside. These short chain fatty acids also help regulate electrolyte balance including sodium, magnesium, calcium and water levels. They are anti-inflammatory compounds and are involved in proper digestion and bowel movements. Our beneficial bacteria seem to play multiple roles in protecting us from harm from the invaders while regulating body functions to keep us healthy.
Other prebiotic foods include beans and legumes, flaxseeds, burdock root, wheat bran and seaweeds. Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) is a perfect example of the relationship between probiotics and prebiotics. The juice from shredded or bruised raw cabbage leaves provide the prebiotic fibre for Lactobacilli bacteria (found on raw cabbage leaves) to multiply and flourish. As they increased in number, they continue digesting the cabbage leaves until the leaves are completely fermented. At the end of the process the volume of beneficial bacteria present is enough to preserve the sauerkraut and keep away harmful bacteria that would otherwise spoil it. This was one of the original methods of preserving food in the past and provided humans with a great source of probiotics as an added bonus. Sauerkraut, kimchi and other fermented foods have become trendy once again so there is no excuse not to add a spoonful or two to your diet everyday.
It is an exciting time for this kind of research and scientist are also looking beyond the gut to unravel the gut-brain connection and the role of the microbiome in our thought processes and emotions. The Human Microbiome Project is ongoing and will provide invaluable preventative measures and treatment options for many chronic diseases in years to come. In the meantime, increasing your consumption of natural, whole plant-based foods to the diet is like rolling out the red carpet for probiotics. It is up to you, the host, to make them feel at home and encourage them to stay, multiply and flourish – a win-win for all involved.