I remember the first time — many years ago — when I heard the term “probiotic” at a nutrition conference. I was amazed as I listened to the speaker review volumes of research about these “good gut bacteria” that help our bodies digest food, assist in making B-vitamins and vitamin K, and fight against aggressive disease-causing bacteria. Fascinating.
Today, a whole new area of nutrition research — including the Human Microbiome Project — is seeking to understand how specific “gut flora” (beneficial microorganisms that live in our intestinal tracts) affect our health.
There’s plenty to understand. According to a recent article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, people with normal digestion tend to have different types of gut bacteria than people with irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive disorders. Our ability to gain or lose weight may even be influenced by the type and amount of bacteria in our intestines, according to preliminary research.
So what do bacteria in our intestines have to do with nutrition? Plenty.
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The foods we eat affect the flora that grows in our gut. And the flora that grows in our gut can impact our health, say researchers.
Here’s one way it may work: Dietary fiber — the indigestible part of a plant food — travels through the body … undigested. When it reaches the lower end of the digestive tract (the colon), it becomes food for the friendly microbes (probiotics) that live there.
These bacteria ferment the fiber (known as “prebiotics”) and produce short-chain fatty acids — substances that nourish and preserve cells in the colon and the liver. It’s this process, say researchers, that may help prevent gastrointestinal diseases as well as cancer and heart disease.
All gut bacteria are not created equal, however. My microbiota is different from your microbiota, say experts. And our gut bacteria are altered by the types of foods we eat.
People who eat a high-fiber diet, for example — rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans and nuts — have a more diverse variety of gut microflora, according to nutrition professor Megan Baumler. (Good bacteria in our colon, remember, thrive on dietary fiber.) And a thriving assortment of these microorganisms in the gut is considered very beneficial.
We can also eat foods or take supplements that contain “probiotics” (beneficial bacteria) or “prebiotics” (plant fibers that feed gut flora), says researcher Peter Beyer. Cultured dairy foods such as yogurt or kefir contain probiotics, for example. And we are beginning to learn how various probiotics are specific to certain health conditions.
Stress can disrupt the level of healthy bacteria in our guts, say experts. All the better to continue eating a high-fiber, plant-based diet during times of stress, they advise.
These associations between what we eat, our gut bacteria and our health are truly sensational. But so is a good diet, says Beyer. “It’s plant-based, high fiber, and it’s what we’ve been saying all along.”
Now we have one more reason.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, Calif. She is the author of the “Diabetes DTOUR Diet” (Rodale 2009) and the “Diabetes DTOUR Diet Cookbook” (Rodale 2010). Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.