Post No.: 0137
There used to be a time when all bacteria was, in the main, considered the invading enemy that we ought to do our damnedest to destroy and get rid of from our bodies and our homes. But one of the biggest advances in health relatively recently has been the understanding that a lot of specific bacteria are actually beneficial or even essential to our health, and live symbiotically and co-evolved inside and on our bodies. Like a lot of things when we start to learn more about them, it’s more complicated than at first seems – appreciating that something is more complicated than at first glance is often a sign of more knowledge rather than less. The black-or-white view (in this case believing either ‘all bacteria are bad’ or ‘all bacteria are good’) is often the naïve view.
The current estimated average ratio of bacterial cells to human cells in and on the human body is around the order of 3:1 to 1.3:1. The estimate used to be around the order of 10:1. It’s difficult to estimate because the numbers are in the multi-trillions so this ratio may update again (just like it’s difficult to estimate the number of galaxies or stars in the observable universe). Whatever the case, it’s certainly much higher than most people would intuit, and these current best estimates still indicate that there are actually more bacterial cells than actual human cells in and on the average human body! This calls into question how much of ‘you’ is human (e.g. when one says ‘I weigh y kilograms’ or even ‘I did z’), and calls into question the notion of any complex organism, such as a human, being an ‘individual’ because each bacterium is an individual organism/life in itself. Being community-oriented was nature’s way all along – so to be at our healthiest, we must cooperate and be community-minded. Woof!
Science meeting philosophy aside, most of the bacteria inside of us are friendly or neutral, but our particular gut microbiota depends on what types of things we consume (the food we eat essentially introduces and feeds the microbes in our guts, and certain microbes favour certain foods; and we’re not merely talking about prebiotic or probiotic yoghurt-based supplements either but anything we eat or drink).
Your gut will generally benefit from a diversity of microorganisms (so diversity is nature’s way for achieving optimal health and robustness in ecosystems too). Early research suggests that a diverse gut microbiota at an early age seems crucial to help prevent allergies. We’ve been waging war on ‘foreign’ microbes for decades but this may have contributed to the rise in allergies and autoimmune diseases in recent decades?
Having a low gut microbiota diversity is associated with obesity too, although this is just correlational data at the moment. Nevertheless, for the costs versus the benefits if there is indeed a causal relationship, it’s probably wise to eat a wide variety of natural/unprocessed foods (of different colours as a rough rule e.g. green kale, red cabbage, yellow peppers, blueberries, but maybe especially greens) to boost the diversity of your gut bacteria i.e. once again you must eat a healthy diet if you don’t want to be obese – so it’s not really any new advice here. Eat a well-balanced diet full of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and other fibre and polyphenol (which are types of antioxidants) sources i.e. the usual, standard, long-standing advice as prescribed by any credible medical professional for any person without a specific medical condition that requires a restriction in their diet! So no need for fashionable fads – just do what impartial (i.e. not paid by a brand to promote anything) doctors have been basically saying for ages.
Faecal matter transplants (yep, they sound like what they are!) are thus not a necessary magic silver (or brown) bullet for the vast majority of people – a varied and well-balanced calorie-controlled diet, as well as regular physical exercise, are still (despite a lot of independent ongoing scientific research in this area after all these many decades) the keys to being and keeping as healthy as one can be! (It’s great when various scientific research coming in from different angles and mechanisms all point to the same overall conclusions – it reinforces those conclusions.) If you don’t help your diversity of bacteria then they won’t help you in the bigger picture and long-term – ‘you’ are an ecosystem, where if one part suffers or thrives then the rest will generally feel it too.
Our particular gut microbiota may affect our efficiency in extracting calories from our food, hence the makeup of our personal bacteria could be affecting our daily energy levels in major ways. These microbes could even be affecting our moods (i.e. psychology) more directly, and cause or alleviate certain diseases. They may affect our neurological functions (e.g. depression risk and symptoms).
Gut bacteria varies from person to person because diets vary from person to person, so no probiotic supplement can ever guarantee to work for you personally. They won’t do anything (except cost a lot of money) unless you have a particular problem with your gut (e.g. irritable bowel syndrome or infected diarrhoea, and even then you’ll probably need more than what one bottle a day provides), and they cannot be used prophylactically (i.e. as a preventive measure) because the bacteria they introduce into your system won’t likely last in your gut for long without you changing your diet anyway (it’d be like releasing pandas into a forest, but there’s no suitable food for them there, hence they’ll just starve and die anyway). Probiotics are the good bacteria themselves but if your personal gut environment isn’t kind to this bacteria then they won’t thrive there, so you’ll still need to eat a healthy diet with lots of fresh vegetables! They don’t generically or generally make you live longer or become healthier by themselves.
Consuming far cheaper fibre-containing foods (e.g. oats) are a better option to help your gut – foods that contain prebiotics (e.g. many fruits and vegetables) work by promoting (feeding) the growth of the existing microbiota inside your gut instead of trying to directly introduce new bacteria as with probiotic supplements. And these will reach your gut more successfully too because digestive enzymes will destroy much of the probiotic bacteria before they reach your gut, plus there are no compatibility issues because they feed your personal microbiota too.
So prebiotics aren’t the bacteria themselves but are the food/fibre that the good bacteria feed on in your lower gut, thus promoting the growth of the good or friendly bacteria in your gut. Drinks supplements marketed as prebiotics are therefore better than probiotic supplements – yet you don’t really need expensive supplements at all because it’s cheaper to eat certain fresh leafy vegetables (e.g. chicory root).
Prebiotic or probiotic supplements may not do any harm (as long as you’ve got the disposable cash to keep using them since they’re not cheap in the long run) but they aren’t really required. Also, they each only provide or promote one or two types of bacteria when it’s about getting and feeding a wide variety of bacteria, which can be achieved by eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and other soluble fibre (fibre that dissolves in water and turns into a thicker gel during digestion, which also slows down digestion and makes you feel fuller for longer e.g. beans and peas) and insoluble fibre (fibre that adds bulk to your poo and helps keep you regular e.g. whole grains) dietary fibre sources.
Foods containing the fibre inulin (e.g. onions, asparagus, leeks) are great for your gut bacteria too. Kefir (a fermented milk drink) is full of a wide variety of good bacteria that are excellent for our guts, as are other fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut and miso. But again the key is including a variety of these foods and drinks, and other fibre sources, in your diet. As usual, variety and diversity is the best approach rather believing there’s a ‘magic superfood’ that is all one will ever need or needs for now, even though it’s harder to make a simple and catchy marketing campaign that tries to sell everything instead of just one thing.
Probably three of the most cutting-edge areas of scientific research regarding health right now from a biological perspective involve gut bacteria, epigenetics, and gene therapies. Research is still expanding in this area, and being cutting edge – minor theories and conclusions may be prone to refinements and modifications according to newer and better research, but the overall conclusion that we must live in harmony with and care for our bacteria because we live together is pretty confidently concrete and logical I’d say.
This includes when washing our paws too – soap and water is sufficient and preferred over antibacterial solutions for our regular hand washing. This is because bacteria doesn’t need to be ‘killed’ but simply washed off, plus ‘killing 99.9% of bacteria’ means 0.1% survives, which contributes to the antibiotic resistance crisis and a lower diversity of bacteria on your own hands (which includes any good and protective bacteria – the bacteria that attacks harmful bacteria). But do wash your hands thoroughly after going to the toilet or before you eat whatever the case because bad bacteria exists too!
To recap – in order to obtain and maintain a good amount of good bacteria in your gut, one must eat a healthy, balanced diet with little processed food and lots of vegetables i.e. a well-balanced diet is still part of the tried-and-tested way to live healthily.
…Well, one could take regular poo transplants instead I guess(!) :S
Woof! Yes poor dogs who are malnourished or have other problems are known for coprophagia (eating poo) but I know which option I prefer, and it doesn’t involve poo going the wrong way through any hole!