Probiotics and the 100 trillion creatures living inside you!

The Good Life Letter

Sunday 6th November 2011

  • Discover the secret world within us
  • Probiotic yoghurt drinks are just another food con
  • Do your bit for a healthy gut... you've been warned!

Put down your probiotic yoghurt.

You are a human shaped bag which is full of other living creatures!

This might sound a bit extreme for a Sunday morning but it was something I learned from the BBC whilst I was out on a Dad taxi run to get one of the kids.

On Radio 4 there was a chap called Ed Yong who described how we are home to an entire legion of little creatures; microbes, bacteria and fungi that are all working alongside us to help us digest food, provide us with vital nutrients and protect us from infections.

He called this phenomenon a 'micro-biome' and the numbers are mind blowing;

  • There are one hundred trillion microbes in our bodies, and that is more than all of the people who have EVER lived.
  • The cells in the microbes outnumber your own cells by ten to one and their genes by one hundred to one.

Basically, it means that each of us is home to a massive immigrant community - and without them you wouldn't exist.

If that sounds a bit dramatic let me give you an example of how important these little beauties are.

Just consider the work of the industrious bacteria and fungi which inhabit your digestive tract.

Without the impact of the enzymes that they release we wouldn't be able to extract nutrition from plant material, the complex polysaccharides that we depend on.

We cannot naturally produce enzymes which breakdown the cellulose walls of plant materials so vegetables in our diet would provide very little nutrition.

The work of the gut flora doesn't just end with a bit of demolition though, they do so much more.

For instance, some of them also build vitamins for us, K and B vitamins in particular which we need to function correctly.

We are inextricably linked with these microbes in a truly symbiotic relationship where they get a nice place to live and we get a hand with dealing with our food and health.

As ever though, the food business is quick to exploit any scientific opportunity - but they have got this one wrong and are peddling a product which is never going to help us.

Let me explain...

The Great Probiotic Swindle!

There has been an explosion in sales of active probiotic supplements which are aimed at helping the normal gut bacteria stay in good shape, usually as some form of activated yoghurt product or vitality giving spread.

But as is often the case, this approach is actually a waste of time and money.

You see, we each have our own unique bacterial ecosystems operating inside us, and these probiotic drinks and spreads usually contain just one strain of bacterium which makes little difference to the many thousands that make up the normal mix.

Health experts actually say that eating healthily is all you need to do - there is no evidence that any supplements provide benefit, despite the millions of pounds spent advertising them to us.

A proper diet needs to follow some basic rules;

- Eating wholegrains and fresh fruit and vegetables provide us with minerals and vitamins, but also the all important fibre to facilitate gut motility. You should aim to eat 25-30g of fibre per day.

- Cutting down on fats is also beneficial, try to reduce the calories obtained from fats to about 30% of daily intake, with saturated fats replaced by unsaturated sources such as olive oil.

- Maintain dairy products in your diet if you can tolerate them as they are rich in calcium which is vital for stabilising bacterial function.

- Adequate protein levels from meat or beans are necessary to allow the bacteria to grow and reproduce.

The important thing to notice about providing a healthy diet for your micro-biome is that it mirrors what we know about eating healthily anyway.

Avoid waging war on your little friends with antibiotics

Long term use of strong antibiotics is fatal to our microscopic allies because they don't discriminate between the good bacteria and the bad ones which are causing us problems.

Of course, there are times when we need to take these drugs because we have an infection which has to be controlled - and we should always finish the prescription to prevent resistance building.

But we should also AVOID taking antibiotics unnecessarily. For instance, if you have a cold or the flu these drugs will do nothing to help you, but will put your helpful bacteria in the firing line and deplete your reserves to fight the virus which is causing your illness.

So many people rush to their doctors at the sign of a sniffle demanding antibiotic medicine, and get quite angry when the GP declines. They should be made to understand that by refusing us, they're actually helping us grow stronger.

If the internal bacterial system is destroyed there are few options about re-instating it, other than giving it time to establish again.

However, in the case of those who are already in poor health they need a quick fix, and even in these cases doctors do not use pre-prepared bacterial cultures like we see advertised on TV.

They have discovered that the best way to kick-start the gut culture again is with a mixture of saline and faeces... you read that right.

It's called faecal bacteriotherapy, when faeces from a healthy individual is mixed with a little saline and given via a rectal enema or a nasogastric tube - which doesn't sound fun to me!

The good news is, if you eat right, you're unlikely to need such extreme measures.

Look after the little fellows inside you, and they will pay you back with a long and healthy life.

Yours as always,






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