A new year & time to focus on your gut- your microbiota

RGBstock photo- sundstrom

RGBstock photo- sundstrom

Here we are in 2014 and research on the role  our gut microbiota  plays in maintaining health and preventing disease is being conducted at a fast and furious pace.

Microbiota is the term used to describe  the trillions of colonies of  bacteria living in our intestines. It is strange, though, when you really think about it, how slow we have been to embrace the concept.

I say slow but that’s being generous when you consider that  back a mere 100 plus years ago, in 1908,  Russian scientist Eli Metchnikoff  received the Nobel prize for his contribution to science. Metchnikoff, while a professor at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, theorized that consuming foods that promoted beneficial bacteria   would increase longevity. He  researched fermented dairy products containing certain types of  bacteria  and their effects and suggested that cultivating healthy bacteria in the gut – what he called microbiota – was the key.

Yet for many decades, the concept seemed to be ignored until recently when the term probiotics  became a  buzzword in nutrition circles. Probiotic yogurts and drinks along with supplements  became brisk sellers.

If you’re not very familiar with probiotics, here’s  a little background.

We all know about harmful bacteria such as E coli and salmonella and the use of antibiotics which are used to kill them.  One of the problems with the overuse of antibiotics, besides the potential   for antibiotic resistance and the development of superbugs, is that these medications also kill off the healthy bacteria.

Probiotics, on the other hand,  is the introduction of certain  beneficial strains of bacteria through various foods or supplements.

Current research is showing that these bacteria may play an astonishing array  of roles in maintaining health and fighting off disease.

While Metchnikoff worked on the theories over a century ago, clinical research now shows how ahead of his time he really was. Here’s a taste of what scientific investigations are revealing about our microbiota.

•    Immune system functioning
The whole matter is about balance of bacteria in your gut, the area where your body’s first of defence against infection is located.  In fact, 80 per cent of your entire immune system is found in here. Think of it as your body’s ecosystem. When harmful ones predominate over beneficial bacteria, illnesses such as inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome and even constipation may result.

Certain strains  of bacteria stimulate various cells in the immune system to fight off a wide range of infections including some of those responsible for foodborne illness.

•    Diabetes risk
Swedish researchers speculate that gut bacteria may be a better predictor of diabetes than traditional ones such as waist-hip ratios. That’s not to say that  it’s OK to abandon waist management efforts.

•    Girth control
Evidence is accumulating that the microbiota of obese individuals is very different than that of their lean counterparts. Certain bacteria may promote the  more efficient use of calories from food and greater fat storage. In other words,  two individuals may consume the same food but their  microbiota may  yield different calorie counts from that food.

•    Colon cancer development
Harmful bacteria are culprits in promoting inflammation, a process linked to  an increased risk of colon cancer.  These bacteria are also  responsible for toxins that also up the odds of this type of cancer.

•    Allergies in children
The Russian scientist also believed that childhood was  the time to begin developing a healthy microbiota. Current research now shows that probiotic use in children may decrease the risk of allergies as well as reduce the incidence of infections that may cause diarrhea.

Up next: my New Year’s resolution to eat more fermented foods

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Categories: Research Roundup

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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4 Comments on “A new year & time to focus on your gut- your microbiota”

  1. Linda McCarthy
    January 6, 2014 at 3:02 pm #

    Should we be spending money on things like Bio-K? Or is eating yogurt regularly enough? And can we even trust the labelling on commercial yogurt?

    • January 6, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

      Those are great questions, Linda! I am planning another two posts on the topic where I hope I will answer your questions – so stay tuned.

  2. March 15, 2014 at 6:44 am #

    I’ve always known that gut baicerta have a key role in controlling celiac disease. I’ve known there is difference between C-section and normally born kids. Is there ways to increase the gut baicerta.?

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