Our body is home to microbes. The intestines alone is host to over 100 trillion bacteria, constantly competing with each other in this environment we call the microbiome. In fact the microbes in our body outnumber human cells 10:1. Like the rainforest, the healthy human microbiome is a balanced ecosystem. And like an ecosystem, if equilibrium is destroyed, these imbalances affect every function in its environment, often resulting in a slow downward spiral.
Emerging science is opening our eyes to a whole new approach to finding intestinal nirvana, or homeostasis as others may call it. It’s called Probiotics. The next generation of probiotics are going to have an enormous impact in the market.
Nobel Laureate Elie Metschnikof studied the longevity of Balkan peasants, who ate a diet consisting of large quantities of fermented milk. In theorizing why they had such robust lifespan, he suggested that aging was a result of proteolytic microbes producing toxins in the large bowel. As the body digests proteins, these proteolytic bacteria produce toxic by-products. As it turns out, the lactic acid in fermented milk inhibits the growth of the proteolytic bacteria. Metschnikof believed that fermented milk would seed the intestine with “healthy” bacteria (lactic acid) and thus suppress the growth of “bad” bacteria.
From this early theory of bacterial homeostasis in the gut, the study of probiotics began to take root. But not until the last 50 years has advanced science truly leveraged these learnings into practice, seeding a prolific industry based around the (re)introduction of “good” bacteria to the gut.
With advanced gene sequencing only now can we identify many bacterial strains that have specific functional benefit. By isolating and cultivating these strains, we are able to provide them to consumers who have depleted colonies of these strains, so as to proactively bring them into a healthier state of balance.
The bacterial make up of our gut is interacting with us in a ways that drive our biology. As bacteria eat food, they secrete metabolites and by-products that affect hormones and a host of biological activity including metabolism.
The latest research into the microbiome is making a shocking revelation. It seems that the changes in our diet are causing a shift in the diversity of our microbiome; or some suspect it is the other way around. Since so much of the cells in our body are bacterial, and these bacteria cells proliferate based upon the foods they prefer, many scientists are speculating that the western diet is proliferating “bad” bacteria species, which compete against “good” bacteria. For example, with an abundance of simple carbohydrates and saturated fats, certain bacteria gain an advantage and overpopulate the gut, limiting the growth of more healthy bacteria, and perpetuating the biological signals to eat more of the same.
Recently scientists have used germ-free mice to study how the microbiome can affect weight and obesity. They showed that microbial changes encourage increased consumption of “bad” types of foods. Furthermore, in other studies researchers introduced bacterial species prevalent in normal weight (‘lean”) individuals into the gut of overweight subjects, only to find the overweight individuals lost weight.
We are not what we eat. We are all ― for better or worse ― the product of what our microbes eat. Understanding that perhaps it is the over abundance of “bad” bacteria signaling the brain to eat more junk food opens the opportunity to address weight management (and a host of other issues) through functionally targeted probiotics.
Furthermore, the bacteria that colonize in our gut influences our sense of taste, they can produce toxins to make us feel bad, and they can influence the quality of our mood. Even chronic diseases such as diabetes are being tracked to changes in the microbiome.
Compounding the bacterial revelations that may be driving biological changes in our body is the over use of antibiotics. As with any ecology, the diverse bacterial colonies in our body are being disrupted and many species are being eliminated. It turns out that these here-to-fore-unrecognized bacterial species quietly living among us may have profound effect; their depletion may be our demise.
Whether as a maintenance for sufferers of one of dozens of gastrointestinal disorders, or as a safe approach to weight management, mood enhancement or cholesterol reduction, functionally targeted probiotics are an emerging solution to better health and wellness.