According to the old saying, ‘you are what you eat’; but it’s your gut that turns healthy food into fuel. With the right balance of microorganisms, a healthy gut will help you to maintain a healthy body – but what is the best way to achieve this?
The human gut contains a complex ecosystem of microorganisms, many of which have evolved with us to produce an important symbiotic relationship. Most intestinal bacteria are beneficial to us; they produce essential nutrients and vitamins such as vitamin K1, prevent infections caused by intestinal pathogens, and help modulate a normal immunological response.
Like many other complex ecosystems, intestinal flora is relatively stable over time, maintaining a roughly constant number and variety of bacteria. This stability prevents and discourages infections from both external and internal pathogens.
However, when the stability is disturbed – for instance, after a course of antibiotics – harmful bacteria that wouldn’t normally stand a chance take advantage and grow, leading to what are called ‘opportunistic infections’.
So, what can we do to keep a healthy flora to ensure our guts keep working to help us? One approach that many people take is probiotics, ‘live strains of strictly selected microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host’¹.
We’ve been looking into probiotics recently, as we think they could be an effective way to boost absorption of our supplements. The first step is to figure out what a perfect probiotic would look like.
Research suggests that probiotics may help to restore natural intestinal flora after antibiotic treatment, may have a positive effect on digestion processes and may increase the efficiency of the immunological system. However, the effectiveness of probiotics may depend on the strain, dose and components used to produce a given product.
The reason why many probiotic supplements are not as effective as expected is that they contain only a few selected microbial strains. In the recent years, it has become clear that variety, and not quantity, is key when it comes to probiotics. As we have mentioned earlier, there are many different microorganisms in our gut flora.
What we sometimes forget is that these microorganisms can be found in fermented foods that are consumed raw, such kefir, yogurt or sauerkraut.
Kefir is a traditional fermented drink, with a slightly viscous texture and a tart, acidic flavour, that has been produced for thousands of years in the northern Caucasus region. Traditional kefir is produced by infusing cow’s milk with kefir grains, although it can be made with goat, sheep or buffalo milk, followed by a fermentation period. In the UK, it’s available from most supermarkets or through independent suppliers online.
Numerous species of bacteria and yeasts have been isolated from kefir grains and from the fermented kefir product. Many are lactobacilli such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, and lactococci such as Lactococcus lactis, which are found in many commercial probiotic formulations.
Several scientific reports suggest that kefir can help against pathogens, can alleviate lactose maldigestion and have anti-inflammatory effects. Nevertheless, because of the inherent microbial variability of kefir grains (each regional variation will contain different strains) and the different processes used in kefir manufacture, different kefirs will have different microorganisms, which is likely to lead to different effects in the body. It’s this variability that seems to be the key to a great probiotic.
The right diet – including probiotics and fermented foods like kefir – could be exactly what you need to help your gut, and your overall wellbeing.
¹Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Guidelines for the evaluation of Probiotics in Food; Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Working Group on Drafting Guidelines for the Evaluation of Probiotics in Food; FAO: London, ON, Canada, 30 April – 1 May 2002