Did you know that our gastrointestinal tract (GI) is referred to as our “second brain“? The GI tract has its own reflexes and works independently of the brain, spinal cord, and the central nervous system. Organs that make up our GI tract are a “superhighway” in our body, that includes our mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus.
Our brain and gut are connected by a substantial network, including hundreds of millions of neurons, chemicals, and hormones that consistently provide feedback. The feedback dictates our hunger levels, if we’re experiencing stress, or if we’ve consumed a disease-inducing microbe (a microorganism).
Just like any ecosystem populated by rival species, the environment inside of the gut determines which inhabitants will blossom. Microbes depend on the mucus layer, and they can grapple in a gut where the mucus is especially meager and thin. But, add some bulk to the mucus, and the mucus-adapted microbes can have a resurgence.
With that said, not all bacteria in our bodies are created equal.
Bacteria: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
Bacteria can often be misunderstood. The word embodies a negative connotation, associated with serious diseases and infections such as pneumonia, strep throat, and food poisoning like E. coli.
Diligently washing our hands, using disinfecting gels, and effectively cleaning both kitchen and bathroom sinks are just some of the strategies used to tackle bad bacteria.
On the other hand, our bodies are comprised of 100 trillion “good” bacteria. A decent amount is housed within our gut and is responsible for our body thriving in harmony. Good bacteria help our body to properly digest food, as well as absorb nutrients. Additionally, vitamins are produced in the GI tract, such as B6, B12, and folic acid.
The National Center for Health Research explains that the bacteria species that colonize our respiratory and digestive systems, help establish checks and balances in the immune system. White blood cells systematically search the body, looking for infections, as well as limit the number of bacteria that can grow there.
Another benefit of good bacteria is that it can help break down carbohydrates; they help us soak up the fatty acids that cells need to grow. Bacteria help protect cells in the intestines from plaguing pathogens, boosts our immune system, as well as promotes the repair of compromised tissue.
When valuable bacteria increase, they behave as our body’s protectors. Bad bacteria won’t have a fighting chance to grow and cause disease when good bacteria are in place.
Drugs and Bugs
It’s important to respect the power of the ‘bugs’ that live in us —to help heal, and not just harm.
Antibiotics are drugs that have been developed with the intention of destroying bad bacteria that lead to disease. But taking antibiotics to treat infections, may also kill good bacteria, throwing the immune system out of whack. This imbalance of bacteria can cause diarrhea and other GI troubles. In addition to allowing disease-causing bacteria to multiply, the outcome can be as simple as allergies, or as significant as life-changing autoimmune diseases. Without the right balance of bacteria, our bodies might suffer from chronic inflammation.
These powerful medications are an invaluable tool to keep us healthy, but they should not be overused.
The idea that eating bacteria — similar to those living in the body — could promote health benefits, has been around since the early 20th century. Today, there are companies who market products called probiotics.
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that come in supplements, suppositories, and lotions.
There are many foods that naturally contain friendly bacteria, such as:
- Cheeses with live active cultures
- Sourdough bread
Some studies believe that probiotic supplements may improve health, but not everyone is fully on board with that conclusion. Before consuming any probiotic supplement, be advised that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved these products.
Let your physician or pharmacist know before you take any probiotic supplement, especially if you are pregnant or nursing, have a weakened immune system or are taking medication that suppresses your immune system.
Looking for more insights on healthy living? Be sure to check out our blog on tips to stay healthy.