by Elisa Olivier-Nielsen, MA, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, EON Consulting
Our digestive system plays a vital role in our survival and overall health. Everything we eat and drink passes through our digestive track whether to be used or discarded, and all of this happens primarily in our intestines.
Our small intestine is responsible mostly for digestion and absorption of nutrients; the large intestine (colon) is responsible for detoxification, formation and removal of solid waste, production of nutrients, and to a small extent, absorption of certain nutrients and water.
However, in the colon we also find our gut flora or microbiome — a combination of bacteria, viruses and fungi that can be either beneficial or harmful to our bodies.
The beneficial microorganisms in our gut flora are known as probiotics, and they have been studied for their extensive benefit such as supporting immune, metabolic and digestive health. The harmful microorganisms include E. coli, salmonella, candida, parasites, etc.
On the other hand, prebiotics are foods and a type of plant fiber our body cannot digest, and they are the preferred food source for beneficial microorganisms (probiotics). When these foods are digested by the probiotics, short-chain fatty acids are formed, and most of them are also beneficial to our health.
To maintain a healthy gut, probiotics and prebiotics must work together to create a healthy environment within your gut. This can be accomplished by consistently feeding and repopulating the good bacteria with prebiotics and probiotics from foods and/or dietary supplements.
When supporting gut health, it is important to remember that our gut flora must be in balance, meaning that the harmful microorganisms are to be kept in check by our beneficial microorganisms. However, this precious balance is very sensitive to our environment.
Several common factors can cause an imbalance in our gut flora such as:
- Alcohol intake
- Being overweight or obese
- Diet high in processed/refined carbohydrates
- Gluten consumption
- Overuse of antibiotics
- High stress levels
- Overuse of drugs that lower stomach acid
- Excessive sugar intake
- Lack of exercise
- Birth control pills
- Excessive high-intensity exercise
An easy way to improve gut health is to eat plenty of whole grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables, legumes, fruits, fermented foods that have beneficial bacteria, foods with polyphenols (chocolate, grapes) and spices (garlic, turmeric, ginger).