Good Health Through Gut Flora Balance
17 Oct 2022
Intestinal flora, as part of the digestive system, is undoubtedly one of the most important factors for maintaining good health. But why is that? How exactly does the optimal functioning of the gastrointestinal tract influences our overall health? These and many more questions about the organs, glands, and nerve cells that help the whole process of synthesizing each bite of food we eat – will be answered in this article.
Brief anatomy of the human digestive system
The digestive system in the human body consists of several organs, glands, and nerve cells, which are morphologically connected to form a sequentially functioning chain that helps absorb the useful ingredients from the food and separate the harmful ones.
The digestive tract is divided into an upper and lower one. In the upper digestive tract, ingested food is mechanically processed by the teeth, tongue, and saliva in the oral cavity, then passed through the pharynx (swallower), larynx (throat), epiglottis, and esophagus. Reaching the stomach, the food is partially digested thanks to the gastric juice and temporarily stays there for two to five hours. Due to the acidic environment and the correspondingly high pH in it, harmful bacteria are killed. Thus, the digested food passes to the lower digestive tract, which includes the small and large intestines, and ends with the anus. The other organs and glands that help this whole process are the liver, pancreas, salivary glands, and gall bladder. Looking at the structure of the gastrointestinal tract, it becomes clear that the absorption of useful substances begins only when well-digested food reaches the lower tract, or more precisely in the intestines. This is why maintaining a balance in our gut flora contributes to good health.
Structure and components of the intestinal microflora
Billions of microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microscopic living things inhabit our body and help it function better. Many studies prove that they make up between 1 and 2 kg of human weight, and their biological diversity exceeds 1000 species.
Humanity has known for millions of years that only through the acquisition of nutrients can it survive. Thus, during this time, our organism has adapted to ingesting an increasingly diverse food (along with all the microorganisms in it) that must inevitably be processed through the digestive system. A unique symbiosis is built between the microbiome (a collection of all microorganisms in the human body) and the systems in our body.
The microbiome formation sometimes begins even while the baby is in the mother’s womb. However, the most significant accumulation of beneficial microorganisms occurs afterward. During the birth itself (only if it is natural), when the baby passes through the birth canal, it absorbs some of the mother’s microbial species through its skin. Then, during the nursing period (again naturally), beneficial bacteria consumed in the breast milk, called bifidobacteria, begin to develop in their intestines. They help absorb the beneficial substances in breast milk such as healthy sugars that support the baby’s growth.
How does intestinal flora help the body’s functions?
Over the years, the microbiome in the human body grows and helps the proper functioning of several processes, the most important of which is immunity. Since between 70% and 80% of our immunity is located in the lower part of the digestive system, and more precisely - in the intestines, these two systems control each other. This happens through communication between the immune cells and intestinal microflora. In this way, our body found the perfect response to infections, diseases, and contagions.
After it became clear how the entire absorption process of useful substances from food is carried out thanks to the intestinal microflora, it is important to note the importance of bacteria supporting the digestion of fiber. When fiber is processed, it is converted into beneficial fatty acids, which, in turn, support the health of the intestinal flora itself. Fiber also has other positive effects on a person’s overall health, reducing the risk of several diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
According to recent research, the microbiome in our gut has a direct correlation with the health of our brain. This happens through the proven influence of gut flora on the central nervous system, which has direct control over brain function.
Impaired balance in the gastrointestinal tract and its microflora
There can be many reasons that might disrupt the natural balance of intestinal microflora, but here are the main ones:
1. Taking antibiotics - these drugs are extremely powerful and no matter how they are taken into our body (oral or by infusion), they inevitably pass through the lower part of the gastrointestinal tract so that the residual substances can be discarded from the body. Killing the beneficial bacteria is called dysbacteriosis.
2.Stress – mental or emotional, stress affects the body in all sorts of ways. One of which is by lowering the protective-adaptive powers of the immune system, which, as we have already mentioned above, is closely related to the intestinal microflora. When the body is under stress, we do not pay much attention to what we eat, whether we chew our food well at all, and in what quantities we consume food. Unhealthy eating contributes to the impairment of the gut microbiome.
3. Diseases – several diseases directly affect the intestinal microflora. These can be chronic diseases, acute infections, syndromes, colics, and others.
4. New foods and drinks – building diversity in the microbiome happens through the constant accumulation of new microorganisms, but the initial contact with the gut microflora is not always positive. An indicator of this is diarrhea. The unhealthy reaction of the body to a new type of food or drink may be a one-off due to the body’s meeting with new types of bacteria, but over time the flora will restore its normal function with a slight change in its composition.
5. Improper nutrition - the beneficial bacteria in our body are nourished by varied and nutritious foods. Some of them die in the absence of prebiotic fiber, which is obtained through foods.
6. Alcohol and smoking - excessive or frequent use of any of these 2 substances would seriously damage the microbiome. The consequences are a noticeable decrease in the population of beneficial bacteria (dysbacteriosis), a weakening of immunity, and a corresponding risk increase of certain diseases.
Tips for maintaining good health by regulating gut microflora
Here are some practical tips on how to maintain a good balance of your intestinal microflora:
1. Consume foods with good bacteria such as yogurt, kefir, skyr, mature cheeses, and yellow cheeses.
2. Include naturally fermented foods in your diet such as sauerkraut, pickles, tempeh, miso, and natto.
3. Often eat foods that are prebiotic sources: bananas, asparagus, oatmeal, onions, leeks, garlic, nuts, cabbage, artichokes, etc.
4. Consume foods rich in phytoncides (substances that suppress the growth and reproduction of disease-causing microorganisms): horseradish, lemon, pine tips, nettles, grapes, St. John’s wort, yarrow, sage, mint, lavender, etc.
5. Aim to vary your menu frequently to maintain the diversity of beneficial bacteria in your body.
6. Do not take antibiotics without a doctor’s prescription. They can seriously damage your intestinal microflora if they are not corresponding to the disease you have. Consult your doctor if you need to take probiotics at the same time.
7. If possible, keep stress in your daily life to a minimum, so that it does not hurt your immune and gastrointestinal systems.
8. Be careful when trying new foods and drinks, especially if you are in an exotic country. Ask about the origin of the food and consider the possibility of an allergic reaction.
9. Reduce significantly (or completely) the intake of alcohol and tobacco, so that they do not damage your intestinal flora.
Maintaining a balance in our lives sounds like a mission impossible at first. But if we follow the basic tips and practice healthy eating (and a healthy lifestyle), we can achieve true symbiosis in our organism.
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