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This week I continue the topical theme of maximising immune function with a look at the powerful effect of probiotics on immunity.
Gut Bacteria : a Garrison of Bedfellows
Our digestive tract is teeming with literally trillions of bacteria, the majority of which reside in our large intestine (colon). These microscopic organisms perform numerous functions, one of the most important being the training of our immune cells to execute immune responses. Such is the powerful influence of the gut bacteria on immune function, that researchers are labelling this community of microorganisms an unappreciated organ rivalling the significance of the heart and liver in terms of metabolic importance.
The Immune Connection
The composition of the bacteria in our digestive tract, and specifically in our colon, can exert both a positive and negative effect on immune performance. Simply speaking, a dominance of friendly bacteria in the gut exerts a positive influence on immune function whereas a dominance of unfriendly bacteria exerts a negative influence, manifested as an impaired or weak immune response, inflammation, possible autoimmune reactions and chronic disease.
As testimony to the scientific significance of gut bacteria and their impact on health and disease, The National Institute of Health in the US, one of the world’s foremost research centres, and an agency of the US Department of Health, is actively pursuing research in the area of colonic bacterial populations. Its research is aimed at exploring the link between variations in the composition of microbial communities and the onset of chronic health conditions including diabetes, asthma, obesity and digestive disorders: http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/dec2007/od-19.htm.
Impact of Diet and Lifestyle on Gut Composition
Our diet and lifestyle directly affect the composition of the bacteria in our gut. Antibiotics, emotional and psychological stress, a high intake of meat protein, food intolerances and lots of sugary drinks, snacks and processed foods promote the growth and dominance of unfriendly bacteria. Conversely, unprocessed natural wholefoods, fibre (vegetables, pulses, wholegrains) probiotic foods (fermented foods such as natural probiotic yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, natto) and prebiotic foods (Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, onions) promote a friendly bacterial composition.
Probiotic literally means “for life”. Probiotic supplements are oral capsules or liquids that contain singular or multiple strains of living organisms (generally bacteria or yeasts) that are designed to resist and survive stomach acid and bile secretions and reach the large intestine intact for colonisation and proliferation where they promote a positive health benefit, primarily through stimulation of immune function.
If you are not eating high quality fermented foods on a regular basis, and/or are subject to the dietary and lifestyle influences which encourage the growth of unfriendly gut bacteria, a probiotic supplement may be advantageous. When choosing a probiotic supplement, it is always recommended that you consult a qualified nutritional health practitioner since there are multiple strains of probiotic bacteria and/or yeasts available and one size does not fit all. Specific strains are suitable for specific health requirements and conditions, therefore professional knowledge is required to ensure the selection of the most appropriate probiotic for your given health goal.
While probiotic supplements are generally considered safe, they are not recommended for severely immunocompromised or immunosuppressed individuals due to insufficient clinical research in this area.
Juliet Schaffer from Evolve Nutrition is a fully qualified and accredited Nutritional Therapist with a Bachelor of Science degree in Nutritional Medicine. If you are seeking nutritional advice regarding a specific health concern, or would like guidance for achieving and maintaining a health-promoting diet, take the option of a free 20 minute telephone consultation to see how professional nutritional advice can benefit you. Check out Evolve Nutrition’s website at www.evolve-nutrition.co.uk for contact details or phone 01279 726640 to book a free initial telephone consultation.
Juliet Schaffer, Nutritionist, Evolve Nutrition