The benefits of gut bacteria: Part 3

Recent articles in science magazines extol the benefits of bacteria in the gut. Most recently, that gut bacteria affect mood and behavior. We wanted to know how this research affects industries such as food science, medicine, and others. We asked our Zintro experts to comment and the comments kept coming from many different perspectives! Here is Part 3 in a three part series on gut bacteria and its implications and potential.

Shobhana Natarajan, PhD, an expert in genetics, says that homemade yogurt and other fermented foods have been a part of the diet in ancient civilizations and some modern cultures for several generations. “Yogurt is made by inoculating warm milk with a small amount of fresh yogurt and allowing it to ferment overnight. Fermentation of milk requires the activity of the Lactobacillus species of bacteria present in the inoculum. Lactobacilli convert the sugars in milk to lactic acid. The increase in acidity leads to precipitation and solidification of milk solids to form yogurt. Consumption of yogurt by humans introduces lactobacilli into the gut and these bacteria have recently been found to aid digestion, reduce the risk for cancer, and affect mood and behavior. Understandably, probiotics (foods that contain helpful bacteria) have made their way onto the shelves of grocery stores,” he says.

Research on gut bacteria has shown that it is the metabolic products of these bacteria that have a profound effect on health. “Basic fermentation products like acetic acid, propionic acid, and butyric acid are formed by the bacteria using undigested parts of the food consumed by humans as substrates,” Natarajan says. “Needless to say, the products formed by fermentation of undigested good foods like fibrous vegetables are better than the products formed by undigested foods like red meat. The adage ‘we are what we eat’ now has an addendum: ‘It also depends on what our gut bacteria eat and the molecules they produce!’”

Lisa Mittry, a nutrition consultant, points out that this is not new information. “We live or die through our gut. I see patients daily that have a myriad of digestive issues that can be remedied once the gut flora has been brought into balance,” she says. “If micronutrients are not being absorbed properly, if elimination is not efficient, if GERD is disrupting life and sleep as a result of an imbalance, of course there will be health effects and it will include mood and behavior including neurotransmitter balance.”

Mittry explains that probiotics are one of the top five recommended supplements. “The word probiotic is derived from the Greek meaning for life. Probiotics consist of live, beneficial, healthy bacteria that help us in many ways. Friendly bacteria reside in the intestinal tract and contribute to our health by improving nutrition and protecting against disease. Antibacterial soaps, washes and wipes, impure water, processed foods, stress, chronic dehydration, oral contraceptives, mercury amalgams, total toxic load and nutrient-deficient diets disrupt healthy flora,” she says. “Stress upsets the delicate balance of the intestinal flora and causes imbalances of friendly bacteria which can lead to Candida, autoimmune, and inflammatory diseases. A low or insufficient population of good bacteria can produce serious health problems, and can lead to an inability to absorb nutrients.”

Mittry offers a list of 21 examples of how a probiotics can contribute to healthy gut flora balance, which is essential for good overall health.

1.      Enhanced intestinal health and improve digestion

2.      Promotes regular bowel function

3.      Restores flora and lessens side effects after a course of antibiotics. Antibiotics disrupt the normal bacteria of the gut and cause behavioral changes, such as depression and anxiety. Antibiotics deplete your body of essential nutrients.

4.      Helpful in the reduction of inflammation

5.      Can have an integral role in normalizing and decreasing serum cholesterol and triglycerides

6.      Fights infectious diseases

7.      Helps prevent production and absorption of toxins produced by disease-causing bacteria which reduces the toxic load of liver

8.      Improves nutrient absorption

9.       Prevents against vaginal and urinary tract infections

10.  Boosts immune function- 70% of your immune system is located in your gut. If your gut is overloaded with bad bacteria, there is a good chance your immune system is not functioning optimally. Bacteria residing in the gut influences brain chemistry and behavior.

11.  Protects against invasion of pathogenic viruses, yeasts, Candida, parasites and bacteria

12.  Reduces of hospital infections after surgery

13.  Supports healthy skin (eczema, psoriasis and rashes)

14.  Addresses gastrointestinal syndromes (helpful for diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, IBS, leaky gut)

15.  Produces digestive enzymes and B-vitamins, including B-12

16.  May reduce incidence of lifelong allergies, asthma and atopic eczema when taken during pregnancy and after birth

17.  May decrease production of intestinal carcinogens

18.  Taken during the first trimester of pregnancy will help women lose weight after their child’s birth

19.  Improves enzymatic activity

20.  According to new research reported in the journal Gut Pathogens, supplementing with probiotics may reduce symptoms of anxiety, and helpful for stress and autoimmune diseases.

21.  Protects against cancer development and progression (e Pylori)

Dave Zuro, a health and wellness consultant, says that the introduction of oral antibiotics can disrupt the normal gut flora, and this can cause people to become more anxious and less cautious. “This can lead to an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which has been linked to depression and anxiety,” he says. “Once the oral antibiotics are discontinued, the bacteria content in the gut returns to normal and normal behavior and brain chemistry is restored.”

Katherine Sanchez, health and nutrition communication consultant, says that gut bacteria can be helpful or harmful to humans, depending on its make-up. For example, high levels of Lactobacillus bacteria are helpful for digestion, weight control, and producing B-vitamins (which we then absorb and use); whereas high levels of bacteria such as E-coli can sicken or even kill us. How do we get the right bacteria into our gut? “Eat healthy (yogurt and milk, fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans, peas and other legumes) and cut down on foods with lots of refined carbs (breads, cookies, cakes, muffins, donuts, bagels, crackers, and other floury foods that are not 100 percent whole-grain), sweets and fatty foods,” she recommends.

Sanchez believes that for food companies, this research translates into a world of opportunity. “Companies that will benefit the most will incorporate latent good bacteria into food formulations without adversely impairing taste or texture. Prebiotics (insoluble fibers such as bran, whole grains, and fruit and vegetable matter) help gut bacteria to grow and do their job. There are opportunities in this market,” she says. “Companies that want to be on the cutting edge of the probiotic/prebiotic trend should find ways to replace product formulations calling for refined flours with whole-grain versions. Using pea flour, soy flour and other legume flours are inexpensive ways to up the prebiotic potential of foods. Plus, they’ll help a company earn food label bragging rights for being healthier than competitors’ products in other ways, such as cholesterol reduction and preventing heart disease.”

Taylor Reid, an expert in agriculture, says that in general, traditional food manufacturers are unlikely to know about recent studies or have much interest in them. The growing supplements industry, on the other hand, is likely to seize on it. “Likewise, traditional medicine is unlikely to be affected. But, there is also a growing demand for naturopathic physicians, herbalists, and natural healers who are likely to have known about these connections for a number of years. There’s a reason Sandor Katz’s book Wild Fermentation sells well,” says Reid. “Mainstream nutritionists tend to focus on excesses (fats, sugar, salt) and deficiencies (vitamins, fiber, water, protein). Some may take notice, many may not.”

Reid points out the power that media can have on promoting healthy gut bacteria.  “What happens can depend on whether the national press or daytime talk shows (never underestimate the Oprah Factor) pick up on this research or not. If they do, then you might start seeing commercial formulations in drug stores, or even proprietary formulations manufactured by pharmaceutical corporations and sold by prescription,” he says.

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