Probiotics and the Troubled Tummy Continuum
Some of us feel like we “live” in our minds, others in our hearts. But all of us also “live” in our guts. And it shows in the way we express ourselves: “I had a gut feeling about that guy…” “I’m very nervous, I have butterflies in my stomach…” So when things go off with your gut, it can seem like the rest of your life goes off with it.
This connection between mind, emotions and the digestive tract is literal as well as metaphorical. There is a tremendous amount of nervous system tissue embedded in the gut. Through this connection, the health of one’s digestive system has the power to affect virtually every other body system.
With so much riding on the health of your digestive tract, it only makes sense to treat it well, but as a society, we tend not to do that. In fact, a number of our “go to” treatments, such as antibiotics, create nothing but trouble for our tummies.
The Troubled Tummy Continuum
This might sound like something pulled from a Doctor Who episode but it isn’t science fiction. GERD, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Colitis and Crohn’s Disease may be the result of one pathogenic process showing itself in different ways. As such, these conditions constitute points on a spectrum of related digestive tract disorders.
Dr. Ronald Hoffman, MD commented on the relationships between these conditions along with the factors that seem to increasing their prevalence. He notes that the increase in prevalence parallels the increase in use of antibiotics as well as more frequent consumption of “fast” and processed foods. He contends that these trends are causally related and that makes perfect sense to me. Here’s why:
- antibiotics that are active in the digestive tract disrupt the normal balance of micro-organisms there. Those microbes play important, protective roles in our health;
- “Fast” and highly processed foods offer poor nutrition and may contain ingredients that are damaging/toxic to the cells in the lining of the gastrointestinal tract (GIT).
What this means is our typical health and lifestyle practices are dealing a double whammy to our guts: “insult” – in the form of antibiotics that wipe out our health-supporting bugs, and “injury” – in the form of starvation because we aren’t meeting the nutritional needs of the cells in the GIT.
I’m not advocating that we do away with antibiotics; they’re a critical tool in the healthcare arsenal. Nor am I saying no one should ever eat a Big Mac again. I am saying that all of us, and especially those with Troubled Tummy Continuum (TTC) conditions, should be paying more attention to what’s going on in our guts, starting with the health of the micro-organisms that inhabit it.
The Power of Probiotics
You’ve heard about probiotics. Yogurt adds are always emphasizing how their bacteria are better than the other guy’s. It seems a little gross, though, doesn’t it? Why do we need to think about these bacteria at all?
Back before human beings understood what time was, our bodies were still evolving. Evolution always gives the edge to organisms or processes that are efficient so our bodies “struck a deal” with some bacteria: We’ll give you a safe place to live and lots to eat if you look after us in some way. Weird but true.
Humans need Vitamin B12 and Vitamin K to be healthy. We can get B12 and K from food that we eat, but bacteria living in our digestive systems also make it for us.
In addition to making those all-important vitamins, probiotic organisms also protect us by:
- making it harder for illness-causing bugs to get established, and
- balancing the activity of our immune systems.
To support your general health, you can get all the probiotics you need by regularly consuming these foods:
- yogurt or kefir
- sauerkraut or kimchi
- fermented tofu and tempeh
Other foods, called prebiotics, have been found to support the number and balance of probiotic micro-organisms, especially when eaten raw:
While not a prebiotic per se, dark chocolate has also been found to be beneficial to the microflora found in the digestive tract.
If you have a condition in the Troubled Tummy Continuum, you should probably take a probiotic supplement daily in addition to consuming probiotic and prebiotic foods. Also, anyone who is prescribed antibiotics should take a probiotic supplement between doses of antibiotics and for two weeks following the completion of antibiotic therapy. Consult a health care practitioner for a brand recommendation and dosing information.