What’s the big deal with gut bacteria? Everything! If you’re curious about probiotics and what they can do for you, here’s Probiotics 101 to learn the basics
Let’s take a moment to talk about your gut. Nope, I’m not talking about the spare tire around your middle (although that comes into play). I’m talking about the gut you can’t see: your intestines and the mini ecosystem of bacteria living there. As anyone with digestive problems can tell you, the health of your digestive system can make or break your day (or your week, month, year…)!
I have experienced firsthand the power of bacteria in the body. When I was 6 or 7 years old, I got giardia from drinking contaminated mountain water on a camping trip. Fortunately I don’t remember much about the ordeal, but my parents said the next several weeks were pretty rough: severe stomach pain and all the other lovely things that come with intestinal parasites. Yikes.
I ended up going through 2 rounds of antibiotics (the accepted treatment for giardia) since the first round didn’t work. Between the giardia and 2 courses of antibiotics, my little digestive system was damaged and nothing has been the same since then. I developed a dairy allergy a few years later and have since grown into new food intolerances over the years.
The best medical diagnosis anyone can come up with for me is IBS, which is often code for “we don’t know what’s wrong with you”. While some doctors I have talked to disregard the connection between parasite infections and the onset of digestive disorders, I am convinced that having giardia and 2 courses of antibiotics at an early age changed my intestinal flora for the worst.
What’s so important about gut bacteria?
Your intestinal tract is not a void space: it is inhabited by scores of bacteria. The average person has an estimated 500 strains of bacteria in their colon. There is no void in the small and large intestine: it is either inhabited by good bacteria or bad bacteria and fungi.
There is an entire microbiome and delicate ecosystem of bacteria in almost every area of your body (except the stomach), not just your intestines. If the good bacteria is reduced or wiped out (for example from antibiotics), then bad bacteria and opportunistic fungi can multiply, causing a host of health problems.
An infant’s digestive system is sterile until they are born, then their bacterial ecosystem is populated with help from the mother. Bacterial imbalances in the mother can be “passed on” to children, which is why mothers with non-genetic digestive problems often have children with similar gut problems.
Bacterial balance in the intestines can affect so many areas of the human body: vitamin production, carbohydrate digestion, and immunity 2. Recent research indicates that your bacterial microbiome may affect things like weight control, obesity, mental health, skin disorders, addictions, hormone balance, etc. For whole-body wellness, it is super important to maintain good bacterial balance in the intestines!
This is where probiotics come to play: good probiotics can help to restore natural gut flora by repopulating the intestines with friendly bacteria that can multiply and crowd out the bad bacteria and pathogens that may be wreaking havoc on your body. But, not just any old probiotic will do. You need to find one that is great quality for it to work.
What to look for in good probiotics
There is one caveat to our topic of bacteria: getting probiotic bacteria past the gauntlet of stomach acid and bile, which destroy the good bacteria before it can even help you out. If the bacteria can’t get past your stomach to the small and large intestine, then it won’t help!
Here are a few things to look for when choosing an effective probiotic:
- Bacterial strain: stomach acid and bile resistant strains are best. Bifidobacterium and Lactobbacillus bacterial groups do well
- Good packaging: probiotics should be freeze dried and sealed well to prevent moisture from getting in the package. Proper storage during production and shipping is crucial as well.
- Minimal added ingredients: if you have multiple food allergies, make sure your probiotics don’t have added ingredients that could harm rather than help. Things to watch out for are filler wheat or corn starches, dairy or soy culture bases, capsule ingredients, etc.
- Live Cultures: make sure that the colony forming units (CFU’s) are measured for live bacteria at the date of manufacture. Some bacteria won’t survive the production and storage process, so you need to make sure that there is a significant amount of confirmed live bacteria in your probiotics.
 Bowen, R. “Microbial Life in the Digestive Tract”. January 11, 2004. Colorado State University. http://www.vivo.colostate.edu/hbooks/pathphys/digestion/basics/gi_bugs.html
 Canny, Geraldine O., and McCormick, Beth A. “Bacteria in the Intestine, Helpful Residents or Enemies from Within?” May 2008. American Society for Microbiology: Infection and Immunity. http://iai.asm.org/content/76/8/3360.full
Sarah Jane Parker is the founder, recipe creator, and photographer behind The Fit Cookie. She’s a food allergy mom and healthy living blogger based in Wyoming. Sarah is also an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, ACE Certified Health Coach, Revolution Running certified running coach, and an ACE Certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist