Gut instincts

The gastrointestinal tract or gut is the most important interface between the inside of our bodies and the outside world. Maintaining its health and integrity should therefore be a top priority.

Food enters the mouth and travels down around 10 metres of gut (including the stomach, intestine and colon) before exiting as waste. A healthy gut wall selectively allows beneficial nutrients in but keeps toxins and harmful micro-organisms out. The gut wall can, however, become ‘leaky’ and start letting in the harmful stuff if the micro-organisms living in the gut get out of balance. This can be due to a variety of conditions including certain illnesses, antibiotic treatment, high stress levels, a junk food diet and nutrient deficiencies.

The human gut is home to around 500 different types of micro-organisms or flora. Bacteria make up most of the flora in the colon and constitute more than half of the dry mass of faeces. In fact the micro-organisms living in our gut actually outnumber the cells in our bodies by a factor of 10. Several of these micro-organisms are highly beneficial; the bulk of the remainder cause no harm but a few are potentially pathogenic and cause disease if they are allowed to grow unchecked. It is therefore quite critical that the gut flora are kept in balance.

The metabolic activities of the beneficial bacteria actually resemble those of an organ – some people even refer to this as the ‘forgotten’ organ. These bacteria perform many useful functions: they break down unutilised carbohydrates providing energy and nutrients for cells of the gut wall; they keep the growth of harmful micro-organisms such as E coli in check; they help to train the immune system to respond appropriately; they produce some vitamins such as biotin and vitamin K; and they protect against some diseases.

While addressing stress levels and improving our diet (which should include some live yoghurt as a natural source of beneficial gut bacteria) can help to promote a healthy gut flora it is sometimes useful to take additional probiotics. This are especially important if we have to take a course of antibiotics as these drugs can destroy the good as well as the bad bacteria leaving our gut flora totally out of balance. Probiotics are dietary supplements containing some of these live beneficial micro-organisms. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria are the most common strains used as probiotics. However, there are other types of bacteria and yeasts that are also considered to be exceptionally beneficial and are included in certain newer supplements, such as McNab’s Energy Brew.

Studies are beginning to link different probiotic strains, which are believed to inhabit different areas of the gut, to specific health benefits. These include an improvement in immune function, bowel health and mineral absorption, as well as relief for the following conditions: lactose intolerance, high cholesterol and blood pressure, inflammation, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, peptic ulcer, cystitis, atopic disease, allergies and pathogen-induced diarrhoea.

This army of beneficial gut bacteria acts as the first line of defence and therefore needs to be carefully nurtured. Trouble with the gut flora quickly leads to trouble in the body. So remember, whatever promotes a good balance of gut flora will also promote health.