Microbiota Basics: Whats living in your gut?
We hear a lot about “good” or “bad” bacteria particularly when discussing our gut health. But what exactly does good, or bad mean? We have trillions of microorganisms living in and on our bodies, and a very large proportion of these organisms reside in our gut!
The large community of microorganisms make up our gut microbiota. Unlike the cells that make up our bodies, bacteria are only composed of a single cell. Our cells, also called eukaryotes, contain many more components than bacterial cells, or prokaryotes. One thing that both cells have in common is that they have DNA.
How can a single-celled organism have such an impact on our health?
Usually when we describe “good” bacteria, we are talking about probiotics, or organisms that are healthy for our gut.
How exactly do probiotics help us? Here’s some beneficial bacteria and ways that they make us feel our best:
Lactobacillus is probably the most common probiotic. There are many different types of this bacteria and different stains are beneficial in different ways.
Lactobacillus rhamnosus is important in helping fight traveler’s diarrhea (1).
Lactobacillus plantarum can improve the immune system barrier against invading disease-causing bacteria (1).
Lactobacillus salivarius can prevent the growth of H pylori (the bacteria that causes peptic ulcers) (1).
Bifidobacteria is another group of bacteria in our gut that fits into the probiotic category.
Bifidobacteria bifidum can relieve symptoms of IBS and when combined with lactobacillus acidophilus, may prevent eczema in newborn babies (1).
Bifidobacteria infantis can relieve stomach pain caused by gas and bloating (1).
Bifidobacteria lactis is thought to improve cholesterol levels in some people (1).
Streptococcus thermophilus produce the enzyme that our bodies need to digest lactose (a sugar in milk and dairy products). Many people do not produce the enzyme lactase to a sufficient amount, which is why they get negative gastrointestinal effects after eating dairy. Consuming foods that contain this strain can reduce these negative effects (1).
Other benefits of probiotics:
Some studies have hinted that probiotics can improve our mental state. One study found that consuming 100 grams of probiotic yogurt per day improved general health, depression, anxiety, and stress (2).
Healthy bacteria may lower bad LDL cholesterol and blood pressure. Certain lactic acid-producing bacteria may reduce cholesterol by breaking down bile in the gut (bile is a naturally occurring fluid made of cholesterol and aids in fat breakdown) (3).
Probiotics improve urinary and vaginal health by reviving a healthy balance
Probiotics may improve immune health. Some research has hinted that probiotics may relieve seasonal allergies in some people by reducing the inflammatory response (4).
Probiotics can reduce oral health problems by acting as a natural remedy for cavities. Just like your gut, your mouth has a microbiome, too. Probiotics help maintain a healthy balance here and prevent tooth decay (5).
The “bad” bacteria can cause a wide range of negative side effects.
Clostridium difficile can cause “traveler’s diarrhea” (6).
Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is the bacteria that cause peptic ulcers.
Our bodies are never completely rid of the “bad” bacteria, but a healthy number of good bacteria can shift the ratio in our favor.
What happens when ratio is off? The following are a few issues that are thought to be linked to a bacterial imbalance (7):
How can you improve your gut balance?
Eat probiotic-containing foods! If you need guidance, check out some of my favorite fermented foods.