Probiotics, prebiotics and gut flora

Taking a probiotic or fermented food can be helpful to our gut flora but only to an extent. They really don’t survive long if they aren’t being fed and the quantity of microbes in the tablets or fermented food compared to the the population in the gut itself…. well, think of it as being a bit like asking one doctor to service an entire hospital. A mere drop in the ocean so to speak!

Probiotics and fermented foods can add new strains (species) but they don’t do a lot to really boost numbers. What really makes a difference is your diet. Within days of changing what you eat, your gut flora changes too, because it’s your diet that boosts or starves each strain. And the healthiest bacterial populations in our gut feed on plant foods (indigestible fibre) so this is what we need in order to nurture and build a thriving healthy gut environment. Animal products don’t contribute to this healthy population because they don’t contain fibre. In fact, by having too much animal foods in your diet, you risk starving your healthy gut flora, and as I’ve pointed out previously, this can lead to inflammation both in the gut and the body as a whole.

Given that the microbes in your supplemental probiotic can die so quickly after being consumed if you don’t feed them, it makes sense to take your probiotic with your plant-based meal. This gives them a fighting chance for survival. But to really boost the population, make every meal a plant-based meal!

Fermented foods are a nice package deal because they already contain some fibre to feed the bacteria, and naturopathic blends often contain a mix of probiotics and prebiotics (prebiotics being the fibrous food our gut flora/bacteria feed on).

Another thing I would like to point out is there are many bacterial strains we might benefit from that aren’t necessarily going to be found in a probiotic or a fermented food. Probably one of the best ways to access new species is to live a little closer to nature and loosen our obsession with cleanliness. I often make a joke when people do things that seem slightly less than hygienic by modern standards, that they are ‘expanding their microbiome’. In other words, they are building diversity amongst the microbial populations that inhabit their body. Living with pets, going camping or hiking, and being less stringent with personal and household hygiene (i.e. don’t use strong chemicals, use natural and preferably edible products) are smart ways to expand your microbiome.

Lastly, and I know this will be a controversial thing for me to say and I won’t be popular for saying it, but why aren’t we asking questions about what happens to our gut flora when we use colonic irrigation? The best microflora you could possibly start your life with are the microbes you are seeded with from your mother’s vagina during a natural vaginal birth, microbes that are vital to the development of your immune system. Every ‘cleansing’ assault on the gut, whether it be from antibiotics or colonics, is diminishing the diversity of this original population and there are no guarantees you will ever get these back again. You certainly won’t be able to replace them with a probiotic, neither in terms of quantity, nor variety.

The best cleansing, scouring action you can give your gut is a whole-foods plant based diet. The fibre in this diet will cleanse and strengthen the gut lining while also nourishing the gut flora that keep it healthy. And the best ‘probiotic’ is a whole-foods plant-based diet and a more natural lifestyle.

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