IPA Executive Director, International Probiotics Association
If you haven’t heard about gut health and microbes, you might just be living under a rock. Given the current times, it’s hard to blame you. Hopefully you know that beneficial bacteria live in most parts of your body, especially your gut.
So, what is it about the gastrointestinal tract that makes it so universally impactful for humans? Well, if you were to turn us inside out, our gut would act like our skin. That means that it is our interior, exterior. Anatomically speaking, this places the gut in the perfect central location, and beneficial microbes take full advantage of this.
They are so good at helping us digest nutrients that, without their help, we would have to eat almost twice the amount of food to be nourished (and we couldn’t digest certain things easily).
Think of your gut like a conveyor belt buffet: food passes through and microbes take turns eating the nutrients that they need. Whatever is left over (including dead microbes) exits as feces. Did you know that over half of your poop is actually dead microbes?
Another important thing to know is that many things in our daily life can influence the balance of these bacteria in our digestive tract: things like changes in diet, stress, travel, and medications. This is where probiotics, backed by lots of great research supporting their benefits, can help.
Just to be clear, probiotics are “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” Like many professionals nowadays, they each offer unique benefits, are FDA-regulated, and are backed by research.
Probiotic strains can digest a variety of nutrients, meaning they are ideal partners for digestion. You might have heard that short chain fatty acids are good for your health. That is because they are the preferred food for your intestinal cells; many probiotics help to produce these short chain fatty acids, and also vitamins and hormones in synergy with our beneficial microbes.
Probiotics can also help to break down lactose and eat up compounds that would normally produce gas or bloating in certain individuals. When our diet or lifestyle changes, their diet changes. So sometimes, what they eat and leave behind produces extra gas — but this eventually just exits as flatulence.
Their eating habits can even speed up or slow down our conveyor belt, allowing a fine-tuning of stool quality, frequency, and consistency. Those with digestive issues, such as diarrhea or constipation, rejoice — there may be microbial support for you in the form of probiotics!
When bad microbes get pushy at the buffet or start to become toxic, probiotics help by calling in our gut immune cells for backup, and helping them target the weak spots. Mucus production, competing for prime intestinal real estate, and making the overall area less hospitable to pathogens are other ways probiotics help.
One of probiotics’ most powerful anti-pathogenic mechanisms is supporting the gut barrier defences — these choose which microbes and byproducts get to exit the conveyor belt and access other parts of our body. Research shows that by influencing the conveyor belt buffet in the gut, beneficial microbes and probiotics can have far-reaching effects on remote systems beyond the digestive tract, including the skin, liver, kidney, and even the brain.