If “health is wealth”, then the treasure box for that wealth is your gut. Guarding this treasure box full of potential health benefits is an army of about 100 trillion microbes that reside in our gastrointestinal tract, infamously known as the “gut microbiota”. They hold immense power in unlocking this treasure box.
You favor the right microbes to flourish, and you are in for cashing out all the immune health benefits for a happy and healthy life. But, if you do not take care of the beneficial microbes, the evil and pathogenic microbes take over to convert the same treasure box into a curse box — spewing out toxic inflammatory substances that can make you sick and miserable.
The inflammation can wreak havoc in your immune system and turn it against you, leading to additional health damage, increasing your susceptibility to infections, and make recovery more difficult.
But the good news is, scientists have figured out (at least partly) what causes the bloom of certain pathogens, how to reduce the inflammation they cause, and even how to support the beneficial microbiota in the gut that can restore the normal functions of our immune system.
Three-Links in the Inflammatory Circuit of Chronic Health Conditions You Need to Break
Chronic inflammation is fueled by a trio — dysfunctional immunity, defective gut barrier and dysbiotic microbiome
A very effective and good old way to bring about this change in our gut microbiota community and build a well-functioning immune system is by eating healthy food. The right type of food can Feed, Fix, and Flourish the beneficial microbes in our gut to promote good health and keep the pathogens in check.
“Every time you eat or drink, you are either feeding disease or fighting it” -Heather Morgan.
1. Feed your microbiota with prebiotic dietary fiber
Be mindful of what type of food you eat. This can have a serious impact on the microbiota and thus on your health and ability to fight diseases. Feeding the microbiota has two aspects -first, eating foods that will support microbial diversity and its metabolic functions, and second, avoiding foods that will cause disturbances in the microbial balance.
Foods that support microbiota
A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, healthy grains, legumes, and nuts that are rich in indigestible dietary fiber or prebiotics is vouched to be the best foods to support the diversity and activity of the beneficial microbiota. Some members of the microbiota can feed directly on the specific types of fiber to manufacture important metabolites. While specific microbes rely on intermediate products that are produced by other members of the microbial community (cross-feeding) to provide health benefits.
Feeding both primary and secondary fermenters is therefore vital to ensure diversity among the microbial community to support the production of a variety of metabolites.
A number of different macrobiota-derived metabolites manufactured in the gut possess a significant capacity to provide health benefits across our bodies including the gut, lungs, heart, liver, and even our brain. Certain metabolites, for instance, short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), enter the blood to reach various organs where they perform various positive functions.
SCFAs control the activities of the immune system, help us respond better to certain treatments, and also play a role in controlling our appetite and mood.
In case you cannot get access to fresh plant produce or find it difficult to meet your daily recommended intake of fiber (of about 25–30g per day), you can also add dietary fiber supplements to your diet to feed your microbiome.
Few points to consider when choosing prebiotic supplements:
- Pick dietary fiber/prebiotic supplements that are complex whole-plant fibers and represent a mixture of fiber fractions at a ratio that closely resembles that in fruits and vegetables — a mixture of soluble, insoluble, slow-fermenting and fast-fermenting fractions.
- Give preference to fibers that are minimally processed and prepared to preserve the other vital phytonutrients — polyphenols, antioxidants, and other micronutrients.
- Isolated or purified fibers may support only a limited number of bacteria in the gut while complex whole-plant fibers support a diverse microbiota.
- Do your homework to check if the claims on the product are backed up by scientific evidence.
Foods that cause microbial dysbiosis
A Western-style diet is usually low in fruits and vegetables and is rich in refined grains, sugar, salt, and corn-derived fructose syrup. Also, its high content of proteins and fats derived from processed meats is known to cause significant disturbances among the gut microbiota.
The advent of the Western diet is also blamed for the complete loss of some important native microbial members from our gut. In comparison, populations that subsisted on the consumption of the traditional plant-based dietary lifestyle are known to have diverse microbial diversity.
Such microbial disturbances are known to fuel chronic inflammation that increases the risk of lifestyle diseases like obesity, diabetes, cancer, IBD, IBS, and mental disorders. Such chronic illnesses are known to accompany dysbiotic microbiota and reduced levels of microbial metabolites like the vital SCFAs — butyrate, propionate, and acetate due to loss of fiber-fermenting microbes.
Avoid ultra-processed, refined food that has been stripped of its nutrition and unnecessarily polished, packaged, and advertised for pseudo-happiness. Be wise to not get trapped in the “low-fat, zero-calorie” nonsense that is actually causing more harm than good to your health.
2. Fix your microbiota with probiotic
Sometimes disturbed microbiota isn’t the result of questionable food choices alone, but bad luck. Chemotherapy in cancer patients, for instance, is known to drive the loss of beneficial bacteria and bloom of their pathogenic counterparts.
The same is true for people who are exposed to antibiotics and in infants born with a deficiency in microbes. The microbiota in elderly people is also known to inexplicably shrink with age, making them more vulnerable to infections and diseases.
One of the hallmarks of a dysbiotic microbiota in most health conditions is the loss of fiber-fermenting microbes. So, in such cases, meeting your daily dietary fiber requirement might not be as effective.
With a lack of fiber-fermenting members of the gut microbiota, we are unable to harness the full potential of the prebiotic fiber due to reduced production of beneficial fermentation-derived metabolites that either directly benefits us or feed other gut microbes.
This is where probiotic bacteria comes into play. By helping to replace the loss of the beneficial microbes, probiotics can help rescue the perturbed microbial community and help support our gut’s ability to defend against pathogens and diseases.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that can provide health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts. They are often the same or similar to the microorganisms that already reside in our gut. Probiotics can also be found in fermented foods — yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha.
Probiotics also exist as dietary supplements or prescription medicines. They may contain a variety of microorganisms, the most common being bacteria belonging to groups called Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Bacillus. Each of these groups includes many different types of bacteria.
Some probiotics also include yeast such as Saccharomyces boulardii.
Probiotics provide health benefits through various different mechanisms that are unique to each group of bacteria.
- Probiotics produce antimicrobials and compete with pathogens for space and nutrients.
- Some interact with our immune cells to influence their function to confer our immunity.
- Support the populations of beneficial microbes by producing substances that can be used by other microbes to thrive and function.
- Ferment prebiotic dietary fiber to generate beneficial metabolites (SCFAs) that in turn benefit immune health activities
It is important to appreciate, however, that not all probiotics are created equal. So do not expect a probiotic that can relive constipation will make you immune against viral infections. Each group of probiotic functions differently and provide different benefits. Okay, let me explain.
Will you bet your money on Roger Federer winning FIFA and Lionel Messi, the Australian Open ? I am sure not. Both of them may be sportsmen but play totally different sports and are trained for unique skills relevant to the different sports they play.
Also note that, Federer can win straight sets on his own as tennis is an individual sport (except when its doubles). Unlike tennis, soccer is a team sport. That means Messi may not be able to score goals unless other players in his team support him.
Similarly, each probiotic is a potential player playing specific sports in our body, some play tennis, some play soccer and others rugby. The main objective of each player is scoring points to provide us health benefits, some can achieve that on their own while, some require team effort.
Probiotic bacteria in each group are equipped with specific machinery and abilities to function differently in order to provide varying health benefits. Only a particular type of probiotic can produce antimicrobials that can kill pathogens directly, while some produce intermediate products that feed other members of the gut, who in turn produce vital beneficial metabolites that affect a particular health condition. Each probiotic in their unique way will influence the gut microbial community composition and function to confer our health.
It is also important to note that not all probiotics that you consume will survive the hostile journey through our gastrointestinal tract as some are sensitive to enzymes they encounter in the stomach and intestine. Some are sensitive to food manufacturing and storage conditions, so keeping them alive and functional in food is a challenge to food manufacturers, especially during food production and storage.
So do not blindly fall for “active culture” claims some products on the supermarket shelves tout for and promise to magically transform your health. Be wise, do your homework or talk to your physician before picking the right probiotic best suited for your purpose if not sure.
Look for certain information on probiotic supplements or foods:
- Which genus, species or strains it contains — for example, Bifidobacteruim (the genus) lactis (the species) Bb-12 (the strain), or Bacillus (the genus) coagulans (the species) MTCC5856 (the strain). This information is important to understand the possible benefits of each probiotic.
- The number of colony-forming units (CFU) the product contains until the shelf-life of food or expiration date for supplements. CFU represents the number of live microorganisms in each serving or dose.
- Suggested serving size
- Storage instructions — some require refrigeration to preserve probiotic activity
- Other ingredient information such as the amount of sugar in a probiotic food product.
3. Flourish your gut microbiota with synbiotic — best of both worlds
Synbiotic combines both probiotic and prebiotic for more effective and profound health outcomes. It is an approach to compensate for the shortcomings of either probiotic and prebiotic might have in isolation.
Probiotic alone, without the prebiotic fiber to feed on, cannot produce SCFAs for instance (specific probiotic can, however, provide direct immune activities). Similarly, prebiotic alone without the probiotic to ferment their specific fractions is not of much use (except that some insoluble fiber fractions can help to keep things moving from one end to the other to avoid feeling constipated).
Synbiotic could either be complementary or synergistic.
- In complementary synbiotic, probiotic and prebiotic ingredients are combined to achieve different individual health functions.
- In the case of synergistic synbiotic, as the name suggests, probiotic and prebiotic ingredients are strategically chosen and coupled for synergy to boost a particular health function or support many functions at once.
A synbiotic that can induce increased SCFAs levels and anti-inflammatory effects while improving gut barrier function for instance can reduce the chronic inflammatory circuit to resolve chronic inflammation in chronic lifestyle diseases.
So mix your yogurt (natural, of course) with berries and oats to get the best of both worlds. Enjoy sauerkraut and kimchi that provides beneficial bacteria and plant fiber.
To close :
Be a proactive consumer. Think like a detective when it comes to feeding your gut and your body — look at the food labels, look at the nutritional information, understand the ingredients that are sometimes written as numbers, go google them, find out what they do to your body. Do not wait for your body to react badly to those substances and then look for treatments.
Feed, fix and flourish your microbiome with focus on the food you eat.