Gut Bacteria, Probiotics, and the Future of Health

Arguably one of the most fascinating frontiers in modern health science is the study of gut “flora”, bacteria, probiotics, and the profound effect they have on our body as a whole. For example, much of the leading research on autism is pointing towards poor microbial activity as an accelerator, or even cause of the condition. There is even compelling research on the link between the gut, brain, and the potential role certain organisms may play on mood and depression.

Fermented foods are becoming more popular than ever, no doubt due to their deliciousness (most have increased glutamic acid or “umami” as a byproduct of protein breakdown during fermentation), but also due to the fact they are more nutritious than their unfermented original form, as well as carrying these beneficial bacteria.

Another stat that blew me away was the fact that the vast majority of our immune system (70-80%) resides in the gut. In theory this makes complete sense, given our gut is the first line of exposure from the outside world to our “inside” world. All other areas of the body are for the most part sealed off, so the body needs to protect itself as best it can by concentrating its defense mechanisms in the place where foreign objects most commonly enter; namely eating and drinking.

One interesting example of the role between diet, gut bacteria and health is fiber. If you remember back to Grade 12 biology class, plant cells are different than animals cells in a number of ways, one of which being the presence of cellulose in the plant cell walls. This cellulose (in conjunction with other components) make up what we know as “fiber” and cannot be digested in our stomachs without the help of bacteria. These bacteria eat the fiber, producing a chemical called butyrate as a by-product which in turn promotes a healthy stomach and intestinal lining. Consequently, a diet high in refined sugar promotes the growth of bad bacteria which then over-crowd the good, butyrate producing bacteria, and can lead to the promotion of many health problems including colon cancer.

So clearly having a healthy gut biome is beneficial, but does this mean that taking probiotic and prebiotic supplements means we will be extra healthy? The best answer anyone in the scientific community can give is, maybe…

There’s no doubt the recent craze in foods rich in probiotics (kombucha, kefir yogurt, sauerkraut) is due to their supposed health benefits, but for every positive study on probiotics there seems to be an equal number saying more research is needed, or at the very least a more reasonable investigation into the “miracle” claims many tout in their favor.

I won’t inundate you with links, but suffice to say if you Google “probiotics + health” you’ll get thousands of results, both positive and negative. One scientific review from 2016 said there is little evidence that probiotic supplements have any impact on healthy adults. However, the review looked at studies with relatively short windows on it’s test subjects (21 – 42 days) and measured predominantly fecal microbiota (…gross).

Overall I think people need to focus on our health as a lifelong pursuit, rather than quick “30 day diet turnarounds” that eventually return to bad habits. If your diet is mainly junk food and sugar, chances are a few probiotics are not going to help you. One turmeric kombucha a week is probably pointless, but eating a predominantly plant based diet that is varied in raw, cooked and fermented products is definitely a smart bet over the course of one’s life.

Probiotics – like vitamins or creatine – are a “supplement”, and should therefore be an addition to your diet, not the basis of it. One analogy I like is seeing your health as a road, with supplements being the small patches to potholes, rather than a massive repaving project. If you have a healthy diet, vitamin and probiotic supplements will likely help fill the small gaps in the road, but on their own they can’t pave 10kms of broken road with smooth concrete.

At the end of the day, it’s always important to remember that the supplement industry is a ~$37 billion market (with a B!) there to sell you as much as possible; a skeptical mindset is essential! Do your research, get the advice of professionals, and look at your health as a long game, not a short game.

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