The intestinal tract is home to an extensive range of microflora which is integral to our digestive functions. Indeed, it is so integral to our body that gut microflora has even been classified as an additional human organ. Estimates suggest that our intestines are home to a community of around 500 to 1,000 distinct bacterial species with the collective number within each person being around 100 trillion….sounds a bit scary doesn’t it?
The intestines are actually a great home for this mass community of microbes because it remains at a steady temperature and is full of compounds like carbon, nitrogen and other sources of necessary nutrition. Our bodies are home to this community of bacteria from birth as the initial transfer of microflora from the mother occurs during delivery. The make-up of our microflora does not remain the same; it continues to change as the child matures via contact with other people and other factors such as digesting food.
Functions of intestinal microflora
Gut microflora performs a number of crucial functions important to our health and wellbeing. It aids the synthesis of vitamins B and K, metabolizes sterols and bile acids. It also helps get energy from the fermentation of carbohydrates the absorption of fatty acids. As well as its digestive functions, gut microflora stimulates cell growth, represses the growth of harmful bacteria and other microorganisms and aids he immune system by training it to only respond to pathogens.
The intestinal microflora help reinforce the immune system in a variety of ways, many of which are not documented. However there are known immune responses such as the stimulation of antibacterial compounds in response to a bacterial invasion, triggering inflammation following injury and interacting with receptor cells to protect against pathogens.
Gut microflora helps synthesize vitamins such as folate and biotin and also aids the absorption of minerals such as calcium, iron and magnesium into the body. Research has also showed that gut microflora allows its host to gain nutrients from a broader variety of food. A study conducted on mice demonstrated that mice with normal intestinal flora required fewer calories to maintain their weight than mice which were germ free.
Bacteria are linked to allergy prevention because allergies are basically an immune system overreaction to harmless antigens. Studies looking at the gut flora of children have demonstrated that children with allergies have a different intestinal flora composition to those without allergies. Children suffering from allergies are more likely to possess harmful bacteria such as C. difficile and streptococcus aureus and fewer good bacteria species.
Irritable bowel syndrome
The incidence of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is another indication of the immune system response of microflora. There is some evidence that intestinal microflora actually prevents IBD and can inhibit inflammation.
IBD occurs more often in wealthy, industrialized nations and is also linked with not being breast-fed, good hygiene during childhood and the consumption of high quantities of animal fats and sucrose. Antibiotic use is another factor; they kill both healthy gut flora and pathogens and antibiotic use during childhood is linked to future IBD.
Conversely, research has demonstrated that the use of probiotics help maintain the balance of healthy gut flora while also treating inflammation in people with IBD.
Healthy gut flora also plays an important role by preventing harmful species from colonizing the intestines with a sort of barrier effect based on competition and exclusion. Harmful bacteria and yeast species such as C. difficile are prevented from growing excessively because of the competition offered by healthy gut flora. This both protects us from invasion by harmful species and the overgrowth of harmful species already living in the gut in smaller numbers.
Understanding which probiotic strains offer the best health benefits and how they affect your health is important when trying to improve the composition of your gut microflora. The list below identifies a variety of healthy probiotic strains and their benefits.
This species produces lactase which is the enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose. They are also responsible for fermenting carbohydrates and the resultant production of lactic acid.
Lactic acid is in turn responsible for the acidic environment of the gut, which helps protect against harmful organisms that thrive in a more alkaline environment.
He lactobacillus species has several strains:
- L. acidophilus
- L. fermentum
- L. rhamnosus
- L. plantarum
- L. salivarius
- L. gasseri
- L. paracasei
- L. reuteri
The walls of the colon are lined with billions of this species which ward off invasion from harmful bacteria and yeasts. It also contributes to the production of lactic acid and helps facilitate the absorption of important minerals like magnesium, iron and copper. This species also produces vitamin K and the B complex vitamins.
Bifidobacterium is one of the first species to colonize the gut during infancy and as we get older, the numbers start to decline. The following is a list of specific Bifidobacterium strains:
- B. bifidum
- B. longum
- B. infantis
- B. Breve
Restoring the balance
So as you can see, intestinal microflora plays a key role in our health and ensuring that he balance is correct is important. When thinking of restoring the balance, probiotic supplements are often the first thing that people think of.
However, there are many other important lifestyle factors to consider and any amount of probiotic supplementation is unlikely to do you any good if you maintain poor habits like overusing antibiotics or drinking chlorine laden water. The best method of improving the number of beneficial gut bacteria is to create a slightly acidic environment which helps promote the growth of healthy lactobacillus species. You can do this in several different ways:
One of the best methods of improving the composition of your intestinal flora is to increase your consumption of fermented foods. These foods are a rich source of bacteria which produces lactic acid and are the bacteria responsible for making milk sour and fermenting vegetables. They help us to digest carbohydrates that we would otherwise be unable to process and stave off invasion from harmful bacteria.
Fermented milk products, certain cheeses, yogurt, pickled vegetables and fermented soy products are good sources. Try incorporating more of these foods into your daily diet.
Of course, many people will find it difficult to incorporate fermented food into their diets and some actively dislike he taste. Probiotic supplements are becoming increasingly popular and offer a good alternative method of restoring the balance of your gut flora.
There are so many probiotic supplements available these days that it is important to note exactly what they contain in order to make an informed choice.
Gut flora Complex
Gut flora complex is a supplement made with a combination of natural ingredients including oregano and anise essential oil and Pau d’arco stem. These ingredients have been used traditionally to promote intestinal health, reduce bloating and wind, and cleanse the intestinal tract to create a suitable environment for healthy gut flora.
According to the literature, gut flora complex is unique in that it clearly identifies the precise ingredients of each capsule, is coated to survive intact through the stomach and is tested stringently.
Gut flora tests
At this point in time, despite recognizing the importance of gut microflora, we do not know exactly what the perfect ratio should be. Experts warn that we are unlikely to ever know for sure and that even if we did, the ideal ratio would vary according to age, diet, climate and body composition among other factors.
It is however possible to test the composition of your intestinal flora with several companies such as American gut and µBiome offering fecal analysis. However, several articles that I have read during my research suggest that different companies have provided wildly differing analysis based on the same sample. With that in mind, I would recommend that you thoroughly research the available companies before going ahead with testing.