We have billions of microorganisms living in our guts and the balance of species of these organisms has a powerful effect on our overall health. Imbalances in gut flora are common due to antibiotics, disease, stress, or diets high in meat and saturated fats. The wrong population of bacteria in our guts can contribute to digestive distress, but they can also contribute to less obvious issues. An imbalance of gut bacteria can deactivate digestive enzymes, stimulate dysfunctional immune responses, activate carcinogens, and contribute to migraines. On the other hand, beneficial bacteria help optimize digestion, stimulate immune function, improve the intestinal barrier, and prevent colonization of the gut by pathogens. In addition, they can break down certain toxins and synthesize some of our vitamins like vitamin K. Beneficial bacteria may also help prevent colon cancer by lowering intestinal pH.
Recent research is suggesting additional benefits to having a healthy population of gut flora. A new analysis of the causes of diverticular disease of the colon shows that there is an inflammatory component to this condition. This inflammation in impacting the neuromuscular functioning of the gut in a way that contributes to the symptoms of this disease. One avenue being considered to help address this problem is the use of probiotic supplements to help reduce inflammation in the gut. Beneficial bacteria work to fight inflammation by enhancing immune function, producing compounds that nourish the cells lining the colon, and improving intestinal barrier function.
We are also increasingly becoming aware of the connection between the gut, brain, and our mood. In an initial study, women given a daily probiotic showed decreased emotional reactivity when presented with negative stimuli. Brain scan done in conjunction with this study revealed decreased activity in areas of the brain associated with fear and other strong emotions. Though this was just a preliminary study, it reminds us of the immense importance digestive health has on our overall wellbeing.