For many years we have been taught to avoid bacteria, as ‘germs’ are the source of infection and therefore illness. While this is true to a point, the reality is far more complex than previously understood.
The human body – as we may well know- is a very complex organism. Even more complex though, are the bugs that inhabit the body. There are actually 10 times as many bacterial cells on and in a human than there are human cells!! And what is even more fascinating is that the bacterial world is like any other ecosystem, where numbers of one bacteria support the levels of another, and too many of one type, may crowd out others. If one group starts to get out of hand, it can force out another group and disrupt the balance of the colony. It is important to keep all of the members of the colony happy. Even though some bacteria do not confer a directly positive health effect, they help another type of bacteria to do their job, and so are necessary for overall health.
We are starting to learn more about how what we do in our lives affects our bacterial colonies. The foods that we eat (or don’t eat), the medications that we take, our exercise and sleep patterns can all have an effect on the types and numbers of bacteria that live in the different parts of our bodies.
You have probably heard news of how antibiotics can reduce beneficial bacterial numbers and allow the overgrowth of less beneficial bacteria (such as in antibiotic associated thrush – a candida albicans overgrowth). Other medications can also affect the gut flora. For example, the oral contraceptive pill can alter the delicate microbial balance, leaving you – the host – with a colony that looks less than ideal.
In addition, the composition and quality of your diet will have a great impact on your gut flora. Bacteria require lots of fibre to feed on to survive – that means that a diet high in fruits and vegetables is going to help to keep your bacteria happy (what a surprise!) Remember – when you feed your body, you are feeding your flora too!
The direction of influence is not a one-way street though. The flora in our bodies can impact our health and change the way we live our lives, just in the same way that what we do can influence bacterial health. Gut flora has numerous affects on the health of its host, including the breakdown of food for absorption, the production of certain vitamins such as vitamins K and B12 and stimulating our immune system.
Furthermore, your gut flora can affect how much sex steroid hormone (such as oestrogen or testosterone) is floating around in your body and can even influence your appetite and food choices! Some studies have found that when a patient receives the flora (bacteria) from an overweight or obese person (such as in faecal transplants – yes, it’s true!), the recipient also becomes obese within a short period of time. Other studies show that bacteria have a way of ‘talking’ to our nervous systems and telling us which foods to choose and helping us to identify when we are full. Ensuring that our gut flora is in a healthy balance is essential to good health.
If you are not sure if your current diet supports healthy gut flora, or whether your flora are working with, or against you, an appointment with one of our naturopaths will help get your gut back on track and keep your bugs happy and healthy.
Gemma Martin – Naturopath
Bachelor of Naturopathy