Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Digestive Health

Whether you know it or not, like it or not, your body houses about 10 times the number of bacteria than it has cells in the body.   There are estimated to be close to a quadrillion bacteria compared to the 75 trillion cells that make up the body.  If you were to truly analyze the human body from a microscopic point of view, you would probably think we were just a large reservoir for microbial life.  We are in essence, 5 star microbial hotels, complete with room service, cable, swimming pool, & a fitness center.

The next time you get on the scale, you can rest assured that 2-3 pounds that are registering are not you...they are the bacteria you are hosting!  In fact, we host over 500 different species of bacteria with some of these being classified as good and others being bad.  In other terms, we have a symbiotic relationship (life enhancing for both parties) with some and a parasitic (life-stealing) relationship with others.  The correct ratio for health and wellness is considered to be about 85% good to 15% bad.
In utero, the fetus is completely devoid of microbes.  However, the child's first (and perhaps most important) meal comes as it heads down the birth canal, which is full of bacteria.  These microorganisms make their way onto the newborn's skin, eyes, & mouth as the baby pushes through the vaginal walls.  From that moment on, every mother's kiss, every swaddling blanket, carries on it more of these special critters, which are introduced into the baby's system.
By about the age of 2, most of a person's microbial community is established. Amazingly, just small differences in our microflora may have a big impact on the genetic expression of the individual.  Factors, such as maternal health, early childhood nutrition, nervous system function, and antibiotic usage play a gigantic role in the maturity of the gut flora.  Experts believe that the critical colonization period happens in the first few years, which explains why the microflora fingerprints of adult twins, who shared an intimate environment (and a mother) in childhood, more closely resemble each other than they do those of their spouses, with whom they became intimate later in life.
Most of the bacteria reside in our digestive system and play an enormous role in the digestive process, allowing nutrients to be easily assimilated into our systems. These probiotic organisms also help clean up toxic debris and contaminating food particles in our gastro-intestinal tract.  They produce vitamins, in particular thiamine, pyroxidine and vitamin K. These little friends of ours also create the enzymes necessary to metabolize cholesterol and bile acid. Finally, they are absolutely necessary for us to digest complex plant polysaccharides, the fiber found in grains, fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be indigestible. 

Our immune system is also very much dependent on these microbial beings to compete with the virulent strains of pathogenic bacteria, viruses, & fungus who would love to take control.  These parties fight over nutrition and attachment sites on various cells in the colon tissue.  If the pathogenic strains take over they steal nutrients, destroy cells, release toxins into the blood stream and create massive inflammatory responses from our immune system.  An improper microflora balance most often leads to disruptions in digestive, immune, & neurological function leading to a variety of pathological processes. 

The gut bacteria live within the mucus membrane that surrounds the epithelial tissue of the intestine.  This layer of mucus is called "biofilm."  Within the biofilm, the bacteria produce certain vibrations which communicate with the intestinal epithelium and throughout the body.  These vibrations stimulate a healthy immune response that affects all of the major tissues and regions.  This is the reason for the ingestion of probiotic bacteria to affect nasal, & vaginal health. 
Our diet & lifestyle have a powerful affect on the microbial balance in our gut. Throughout the ages, every traditional culture has fermented foods to add "life" and longevity to the dish.  Ancient Rome used sauerkraut at nearly every big meal.   In India, they enjoy a pre-dinner drink called a lassi, which is basically a raw, fully cultured yogurt drink. At the end of the meal, they'd have a small serving of raw, cultured curd.
These Indian traditions were based on the principle of using sour milk as a probiotic delivery system to the body.  Other examples are all around us. Bulgarians are known both for their longevity and their high consumption of fermented milk and kefir. In Asian cultures, pickled fermentations of cabbage, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash and carrots still exist today.