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How to Enhance Our Gut Microflora

When influencing the composition of our gut microbiota, there are principally two main concepts: probiotics (live microorganisms) and prebiotics (specific types of fibre which enhance levels of friendly gut bacteria). There is actually yet another concept called synbiotics, referring to an approach which combines both probiotics and prebiotics together.

Probiotic bacteria are microorganisms belonging to our natural microflora with low or no pathogenicity but with vital roles regarding our health and wellbeing. Amongst many benefits attributable to specific species of probiotics are positive effects on immunity, most importantly in infants and the elderly, lowering the risk of atopic disease such as childhood eczema, potential benefits in managing irritable bowel syndrome and possible prevention of bowel cancer.

In contrast, prebiotics can be defined as:

“The selective stimulation of growth and/or activity(ies) of one or a limited number of microbial genus(era)/species in the gut microbiota that confer(s) health benefits to the host.”

In principle, we are talking about indigestible fibres that make their way to the colon where they act as a food and source of energy for our good bifidobacteria. The prebiotic concept is now an accepted scientific fact and it is becoming increasingly more recognised that the changes to the composition of the gut microbiota induced by prebiotics (e.g. increases in bifidobacteria) can be viewed as a marker of intestinal health. Recent research shows that prebiotics may provide a number of health benefits both for gut health (e.g. improving the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome) and our health in general, such as reducing the risk of allergic symptoms (e.g. atopic eczema), improving calcium absorption and bone strength and having beneficial effects on body weight and overall cardio-metabolic system.

We might start by eating fermented and cultured foods regularly. By the way, is this not just what the wisdom of traditional folk cultures has known ages before the advent of contemporary probiotic science? Homemade yoghurt, homemade kefir and homemade sauerkraut are all much easier to do than you might think and they are full of vital probiotics and most likely superior to commercially available products.

Then, you could opt to eat foods rich in prebiotic fibre that are bifidogenic, which means they promote the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria. The list of prebiotic rich foods includes such treats as Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, garlic, onions, shallots, banana, leek, salsify, dandelion, chicory and beetroot. Another option is to supplement your diet with a prebiotic product and for that you may look no further than the widely available second generation galactooligosaccharide prebiotic food supplements which are receiving increasing research interest due to their potential benefits for the health of our gastrointestinal, immune and metabolic systems.

Some specific health conditions may call for the use of probiotic treatments, considering a vast number of probiotic products now commonly available in the health stores. However, it is necessary for you to understand that not all probiotic products available in the market are created equal. A number of the probiotic health benefits reported in the scientific papers is specific to the strain of friendly bacteria used in that particular study and they cannot be applied as a general rule to all probiotics. Moreover, the quality, efficacy and potency of commercially produced versions of probiotics is very unpredictable. Even if the potency is guaranteed, you need to know whether such probiotic has the right properties to make it effective for your particular purpose: Is it resistant to bile and stomach acid? Can it survive in the intestine? Can it adhere to the gut mucosa and colonise the gut? Given these uncertainties, when it comes to using probiotics in order to target specific health conditions, it is not the case that any probiotic will do. Therefore, purchasing the most rigorously researched products is by far your best option.

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