Gut flora is the popular, and rather more poetic, way of describing the trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that live in the human digestive tract. Although research is in the early stages, no one even knows the identity let alone the function of many of the bacteria, some surprising facts are known about the great benefits many of these organisms grant us.
While most of us have a healthy population of beneficial bacteria, we all have potentially pathogenic organisms also living in our intestines and elsewhere in and on our bodies. The trick is to maintain a balance of primarily beneficial bacteria in order to enjoy all the health benefits they provide us.
So what do they do anyway?
Not only do they aid in digestion, they stimulate immune functioning, prevent the overgrowth of harmful bacteria and fungus, and may even prevent allergies. Without our gut bacteria, we would have to eat more food to gain the same number of calories. This is because the bacteria help break down and release the energy (calories) found in certain carbohydrates that our bodies cannot digest. In addition to processing carbohydrates, they produce Vitamin K as well as certain B vitamins, and researchers believe they also help the body absorb these vitamins. A healthy gut flora also aids in the absorption of vital minerals including calcium, magnesium and iron.
A recent laboratory study using rats suggests that a healthy gut flora may reduce the risk of obesity. Researchers found that rats with an unhealthy balance of gut flora were much more prone to obesity given the same diet as rats with more beneficial bacteria in their intestines. If similar findings are discovered for humans, this could have a significant impact on human health, as obesity is reaching epidemic proportions in much of the developed world.
One of the most important functions the beneficial bacteria grant, is to keep the pathogenic microorganisms in check. Although the mechanisms of this aren’t fully understood, many believe it is a combination of simply blocking the growth of pathogenic populations as well as creating an intestinal environment that is hostile to the disease causing bacteria and fungi. We do know that beneficial bacteria interact with the immune system, increasing the numbers of T-cells and possibly producing natural antibiotics and antifungals. Some believe they may even help protect the colon from tumors and cancer.
How do humans get bacteria in their gut anyway?
Current studies show that the developing fetus has no bacteria, beneficial or harmful, in their gut. They receive their initial exposure during birth and within just days are populated by bacteria, primarily derived from the birth canal of the mother. Babies who are born by caesarean section do get some bacteria from the mother, but may get more from their early environment including the hospital staff and other infants. The gut flora changes over time, and by the time the infant is a toddler, their gut flora resembles that of adults, providing all the same benefits.
Various things including stress, poor diet and antibiotics can throw the balance off in the gut. Antibiotics kill not only disease causing bacteria, but beneficial ones as well. Have you ever noticed that people are more prone to yeast infections after taking antibiotics? This is because the population of good bacteria has been greatly reduced allowing pathogens to flourish. Eating fermented foods helps restore the good bacteria. These foods include yogurt and kefir as well as sauerkraut and the spicy fermented Korean cabbage favorite, kimchi.
About the Author
Grace Pamer is a work from home mom and the author of www.RomanticFrugalMom.com, one woman’s ongoing quest to keep romance alive despite modern day time pressures. Check out her love letters for her section if you need help writing a love letter to your nearest and dearest because of a hectic schedule.