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Intestinal Bacteria and Your Health

More than 100 trillion microorganisms inhabit the human intestinal tract and play important roles in health conditions and diseases, including cancer. These microbes are essential for the maintenance of homeostasis (balance) in health and disease. Each bacterial species in the gut aims to increase its own fitness, habitat, and survival by feeding on dietary nutrients and releasing products while breaking down these nutrients. Many gut microbes by-products can influence the human host’s appetite and eating behavior. They can influence behavior and appetite by directly affecting the host's nutrient sensing and satiety (fullness)-regulating systems. In addition, the gut bacteria population can alter the host's intestinal barrier (nutrient absorption) function, interact with bile from the gallbladder, modulate the immune system, and influence host antigen (which is capable of causing an immune response) production, thus indirectly affecting eating behavior. Increasingly, evidence indicates that there is a crucial role for the microbes in the gut in regulating different aspects of eating-related behavior, as well as additional changes in the behavior of eating and disorders of the body. The importance the makeup of intestinal bacteria populations has now also been shown in obesity, anorexia nervosa, H. Pylori in the stomach (ulcers) and forms of severe acute malnutrition. The intestinal microbiota is a changing ecosystem that is shaped by environmental and genetic factors, interacting with virtually all tissues of the host.

Foods or Supplements?

Helpful bacteria can be attained through consuming foods and liquids or by taking probiotic supplements (friendly microscopic organisms like some bacteria and yeast). But how can you be sure that probiotic supplements have the right microflora needed to populate your intestines and help balance your health? One study showed that testing a group of probiotics found that very few of them contained what they advertised. The best way is to be sure it has been tested and certified by an independent testing organization. There are two major testing groups: NSF and USP, and their certifications are stamped on the probiotic supplement's label.

Foods like yogurt, miso soup, sauerkraut, kefir and kombucha tea contain strains of friendly, health-promoting bacteria. A diet with a regular source of one or more of these foods or drinks is a good way to replenish your intestinal bacteria. However, it is difficult to know exactly how many probiotic nutrients you are getting with any one of these sources. Additionally, pasteurization kills the bacteria, so yogurt must include the label, “contains live bacteria” to be sure. For a thorough explanation of the important considerations for foods with probiotics, please read this article.

Your intestinal microflora is constantly needing to be replaced and supported. That is especially true after taking antibiotics, which will kill both the health-promoting bacteria and the medication's intended targets. Whether you decide to take supplements with probiotics or to rely on a steady diet of food and drink with probiotics is a personal decision. Maintaining frequent ingestion of one or many of the previously mentioned sources of friendly bacteria is important. If you have been suffering from ill health it may simply be due to imbalances in your intestinal microbe populations. Studies are inconclusive as to which way is best for individuals in different situations, but there are many studies supporting the use of these microbes for a healthy balance. It is a good idea to include multiple sources of probiotics to ensure you are getting what you need to maintain or recover your health.

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