Not all bacteria are bad for you.  In fact, the probiotic bacteria that live in your stomach and intestine help regulate digestion, safeguard your immunity, and even help maintain your weight.  Here’s how to cultivate the best flora for overall health.


They are terms previously not part of polite conversation, let along TV commercials.  Intestinal distress. Irregularity.  Irritable bowel syndrome.  Where food goes after it’s eaten, however, has become a hot topic.  Emerging research is linking the health of our gut: the entire digestive system, particularly the stomach, intestines, and colon to general wellness.  New data show that the gut is critical to our well-being.  Essentially, the gut is your body’s gatekeeper, letting in helpful compounds and evicting harmful ones.  It is home to 70-80% of our immune cells.  When the gut is in good shape, our systems run efficiently, but when it’s not, we may experience upset stomach, be at risk for weight gain or digestive problems like heartburn and constipation or just feel vaguely out of sorts.  For many people, that run-down feeling has lasted so long that it’s mistaken for the norm.  We could feel so much better, we just don’t know it.


The gut is swarming with about 100 trillion bacteria, or flora, which outnumber human cells in our body 10 to 1.  Bacteria are often considered “good” or “bad”.  These bacteria and the compounds they excrete can have positive and negative effects on a person’s health.  To have a healthy gut, one must avoid eating foods that foster the growth of bacteria that create unhealthy metabolites.  Friendly bacteria aid the metabolism of nutrients and help certain compounds get into the bloodstream.  A diverse population of health-promoting flora protects the gut from the less helpful strains.


In contrast, an outsized number of less beneficial flora, which proliferate with a diet high in sugar, fat, and processed food, can cause gas, discomfort, bloating and inflammation.  The flora can also emit chemicals that compromise the intestinal lining.  This process can allow non-nutritive materials to slip into our bodies and affect how we feel.


Incredibly, some bacteria might make you fat.  Studies also suggest that diabetic and obese individuals tend to lack a diversity of bacteria, and some bacteria metabolize components of egg and meat to produce a compound that aids in the clogging of arteries.  This might explain why some unhealthy eaters get heart disease while others don’t.


The good news is that you can reset your gut bacteria, swapping bad flora for good.  Get the right type in your gut, and depending on your condition, you may begin to see improvements in a matter of days or weeks.   To cultivate healthful microflora you want to nourish the desirable species while killing off the bad.  Beware of antibiotics, which decimate the flora keeping our bodies healthy along with those causing illness and infection.  Every course of antibiotics has a chance for such complications as yeast infections, skin rashes and allergic reactions.  Use these drugs only when needed, and always supplement with probiotics to repopulate the healthful flora.


Probiotics, the good bacteria, in fermented foods and supplements, bolster the number of friendly bacteria in the gut.  For relatively healthy people, it’s always a good idea to start with real food before taking supplements.  Bifidobacteria, found in most yogurts, release chemicals that create an acidic environment in which many harmful bacterial can’t thrive.   You can nourish healthful flora with prebiotics, which contain non-digestible carbohydrates, found in ‘true’ whole grains (ancient), onions, garlic, leeks, artichokes, asparagus and chickory root.  Regular intake has been associated with decreases in irritable bowel syndrome and fat storage (and may reduce allergic reactions like skin rashes), as well as an increase in an overall feeling of well-being.


Take great care to avoid partially hydrogenated oils, as these man-made fats can damage the gut lining, thus allowing the undesirable chemicals released by certain bacteria to leak into the bloodstream and inflame the tissues surrounding it.  What’s more, these fats can raise the population of unfriendly bacteria.


Finally, stress may change the makeup of your gut flora.  Stress alters the functioning of the immune system, either by suppressing or enhancing its response to foreign invaders.  For the good of your gut, and health, figure out why you’re anxious and take measures to eliminate or control those stressors.


For more information about gut flora, probiotics and intestinal health, contact your physician or Registered Dietitian.

Amy Young