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The World Within Us: "Friendly" Intestinal Bacteria Are Crucial For Good Health

We are constantly looking to preserve the world around us in order to make it a happier and healthier place, but for optimum health, it seems we need to look within.

We may not care to think about it, but we are never actually "alone": our gut plays host to around 100 trillion bacteria, or flora, at any one time, meaning that there are ten times more bacteria than cells in the human body. We are conditioned to be fearful of bacteria, and in some cases this is not without good reason, but not all bacteria are harmful; in fact our health depends on the activity of the "friendly" bacteria that live in synergistic harmony with us inside our intestines.

Some bacteria, such as Salmonella or Escherichia coli, do have harmful effects and can make us very ill; however others, such as Bifidobacteria or Lactobacillus rhamnosus, live happily within us and help the body to function more effectively. More and more research is confirming that these types of good bacteria make significant contributions to our overall health, and can also help protect us from the negative effects of harmful bacteria, so it is imperative to ensure that their populations are maintained within the body.

"New data shows that the gut is critical to our well-being," says Dr. Mark Liponis, medical director of the Canyon Ranch health resorts.

A healthy gastrointestinal tract contains a balanced but diverse population of microorganisms (known as microbiota), which should largely consist of “friendly” bacteria. These helpful bacteria aid digestion by releasing metabolytes that aid the metabolism of nutrients and facilitate the passage of essential nutritional compounds into the bloodstream. When this community of microbes is compromised, the microbiota may become less diverse, and the body becomes more susceptible to certain diseases.

"These bacteria and the compounds they excrete can have positive and negative effects on a person's health," says Dr. Stanley Hazen, chair of cellular and molecular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. "To have a healthy gut, one must avoid eating foods that foster the growth of bacteria that create unhealthy metabolites."

If populations of un-helpful bacteria are allowed to proliferate, usually due to a diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, processed food and the regular use of anti-biotics, the most obvious signs are gas, discomfort, bloating and generalized inflammation. The "bad" flora can also emit chemicals that compromise the intestinal lining, allowing undigested food molecules into the bloodstream and causing allergic reactions and bloating.

Lita Proctor, of the Human Microbiome Project at the National Institutes of Health explains:

"This so-called 'leaky gut' allows non-nutritive materials to slip into our bodies and affect how we feel."

So, it has been well-established that maintaining good levels of these good bacteria can have positive effects on digestion and general well-being but new research published online in Blood, the Journal of the American Society of Hematology (ASH), suggests that the diversity of bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract of patients receiving stem cell transplants could also be an important predictor of their post-transplant survival. The intense regime of pre-transplant treatment has been shown to decimate a large proportion of the recipient's gut microbiota, and such disturbances have subsequently been associated with post-transplant infections and disease.

“While the link between gut microbiota and complications in allogeneic SCT has been previously established, until this point it has remained unclear whether the gut bacteria of transplant recipients could predict their survival,” said senior study author Ying Taur, MD, MPH, of the Lucille Castori Center for Microbes, Inflammation, and Cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “This study sought to further explore the potential connection between transplantation, gut bacteria, and overall survival.”

The study showed that patients who were able to maintain profuse and diverse populations of healthy bacteria were less likely to suffer such complications and were consequently much more likely to survive.

“These results further underscore the significance of the gut microbiota in allogeneic stem cell transplant. A major question is whether we can improve outcomes by preserving diversity within the gut microbiota,” said Dr. Taur. “One possible strategy is to find ways to perform transplants in a manner that minimizes damage to the gut microbiota. Another approach would be to replenish the gut with beneficial microbes that are lost after this procedure is performed.

We hope that this study will inspire additional research that will further examine the role and importance of the gut microbiota to stem cell transplant outcome.”

Other recent research has indicated that low populations of healthy gut bacteria have also been implicated in the development of Type 1 Diabetes, an autoimmune disease in which the body mistakenly attacks insulin-producing cells. A study conducted by Marcus de Goffau, Ph.D., and Hermie Harmsen, Ph.D., of University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands, found lower levels of helpful bacteria like Clostridium clusters IV and XIVa in the gut environments of diabetic children under three years old as compared to an age-matched healthy control group. Clostridium clusters IV and XIVa are an important bacterial species because many of them produce butyrate, an acid that helps to prevent and minimize inflammation, as well as preventing metabolic disorder. Butyrate is also readily absorbed by the gut and turned into energy for the body.

"If you do not have enough of these butyrate-producing bacteria species, you will become more likely to develop type 1 diabetes," said de Goffau.

Once diagnosed, Type 1 diabetes is not typically reversible as it eventually destroys the pancreas' ability to make insulin and regulate blood sugar, but researchers hope that the new findings could help to prevent future cases from occurring.In most other cases, however, replenishing populations of good bacteria can have profoundly positive and often rapid effects on good health.

"Get the right type in your gut and, depending on your condition, you may begin to see improvements in a matter of days or weeks," says Edmond Huang, a metabolic biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

So, how can we increase populations of good bacteria in our gut?

To restore a civilised and helpful bacterial community inside us, it is necessary to crowd out the harmful species by supplementing new multitudes of friendly types, and then provide these welcome newcomers with the correct form of nourishment to allow them to dominate over the undesirables.

Taking probiotic supplements can help to do this, both in supplement form and by eating fermented foods such as kombucha, sauerkraut, live yoghurts and miso paste. Nourish these probiotic cultures by eating their favorite foods; they thrive on non-digestible carbohydrates found in whole grains, onions, garlic, leeks, artichokes, asparagus, and chicory root.

Babies receive good bacteria via breast milk, according to a recent study published in Environmental Biology.The study was led by Professor Christophe Lacroix at the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health, ETH-Zurich, Switzerland, who commented;

"We are excited to find out that bacteria can actually travel from the mother's gut to her breast milk. "A healthy community of bacteria in the gut of both mother and baby is really important for baby's gut health and immune system development."

To preserve a healthy gut, also take a look at your lifestyle, as studies show that stress can negatively impact the status of gut microbiota. The author of a 2011 "Brain, Behavior, and Immunity" study, Ohio State University associate professor of oral biology Michael Bailey, reported that stress "alters the functioning of the immune system -- either by suppressing or enhancing its response to foreign invaders."

Rest and relaxation benefits both ourselves and our internal guests, so eliminating stressors and ensuring that we make time for enjoyment is a must for a healthy gut.

Avoid taking unnecessary courses of anti-biotics as these kill both good and bad bacteria indiscriminately, decimating healthy gut flora.

"Every course of antibiotics has a chance for such complications as yeast infections, skin rashes, and allergic reactions," said Dr. Liponis, and advised that probiotics should be taken after every course of such drugs.

If an individual has a long history of unhealthy diet and multiple courses of anti-biotics, it may be necessary to visit a qualified nutritional therapist who can tailor an individual programme that will help to repair intestinal damage and create an environment where good bacteria can flourish.

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If there is any one organism that could be said to "rule the Earth", it is bacteria. Likely most living creatures including the Earth itself are dependent upon bacteria. It is also likely that it has been the driving force in adaptive survival of species. Good to hear its' praises sung occasionally!

Great article! Good information on what foods we can eat to maintain our healthy gut flora.

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