What are friendly bacteria?
Friendly bacteria are everywhere: on our skin, in our mouth, inside our eyelids – you name it, they’ve got it covered. However, most importantly they inhabit our digestive tract; with 100 trillion of them living between our small and large intestine they outnumber harmful bacteria helping to protect our body from infection. Not only do gut flora aid our immune system, they also increase the number and variety of nutrients our body can absorb. They do this by actively producing vitamin B and K, which are essential for maintaining energy levels, relieving stress and helping blood to clot. Additionally, gut flora create specific enzymes that allow plant matter to be broken down and utilized by our cells These functions are essential as many Western diets lack vitamins B and K, and the enzymes produced by gut flora cannot be synthesised by the human body. Recently, research has suggested that friendly bacteria within our digestive system have the ability to influence gene activity and directly impact our metabolism – a potential glimmer of hope in a world with increasing levels of obesity. Although we do not yet know the full importance of maintaining healthy gut bacteria, we are already certain that the consequences can be great for those suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), depression and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
A healthy gut makes a happy you
With phrases such as “gut instinct” and “gut feeling”, it is easy to see why the stomach is often described as “our second brain”. Although this may seem like an old wives’ tale, which should be taken with a pinch of salt, there is a surprising element of truth in the connection between our belly and our brain. The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) governs the operation of our digestive system subconsciously –we don’t need to consciously think: “Now body, digest that sandwich.” The ENS is incredibly complex with the ability to function with or without communication from the Central Nervous System (CNS). Of particular interest is the use and production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, often referred to as “the happy hormones”. These chemicals are abundant in the gut, which contains over 90% of the body’s serotonin. It is believed that bacteria create an immune response which increases serotonin production. As the ENS is highly complex, we are not yet certain of its exact interactions with the CNS. However, it is understood that this complex pathway causes a feedback loop: if the brain is in a state of stress, it will cause the stomach to feel unsettled and if your digestion is under stress, it will, in turn, worsen your mood. This loop also works the other way: if digestion is eased then it can create a calm and relaxed feeling.
How to repopulate your gut
Like all organisms, friendly bacteria need nutrients to survive. Therefore, by eating nutrient dense food, you will be giving your gut flora an opportunity to flourish. On the other hand, if you feed them antibiotics, sugar and chemical additives they will struggle to protect against illness. By eating foods rich in probiotics, you will help to feed and repopulate your gut. Two of the most effective means of doing so are by consuming fermented vegetables and Kefir. Kefir is a cultured milk-based drink, which can be made easily and cheaply in the comfort of your own home. Starter cultures are added to milk and left to ferment for 48 hours. One glass of this low sugar, high protein drink will provide trillions of active friendly bacteria as well as magnesium, phosphorous, folic acid and vitamins B and K. Coconut milk may be used as a vegan alternative and, as all of the lactose is used in the fermentation process, Kefir is also suitable for the lactose intolerant.
It is easy to see how helping your gut flora to flourish can improve both your physical and emotional state of well-being, as well as preventing illness. Perhaps in the future, probiotic drinks such as Kefir will become as widely consumed and as popular as smoothies!