Microbiota – The Glorious Cauldron of Colon Bacteria
In the recent past, researchers and physicians have come to understand the makeup of the colon bacteria to a remarkable degree. Microbiologists have been able to isolate and grow some 300-400 different bacteria from the colon, along with some viruses and yeasts – all entirely normal to find in the colon. Then in the past few years, researchers have been able to use new techniques to analyze the DNA within all the colon’s bacteria, an amazing feat. Still more amazing, it has been found that there are likely over 1,000 different types of bacteria growing in the colon, twice the number previously known. In addition to that, the total number of bacteria in the colon is measured to be many trillions, about the same number of cells as in the entire body. It gives you pause when companies that sell probiotic bacteria products claim to have 5 or 10 billion bacteria in a pill, an incredibly small number compared to what is already in the colon.
Here is a final fact to consider. There is no place in the world, no organ or colon in any other animal or fish where there is such a tightly packed collection of bacteria, as in the human colon. This is normal. So, the question is – why do humans have this incredible collection, this glorious, chaotic, tightly packed mix of bacteria as a normal part of our bodies? The answers are slowly coming in. They are incredibly surprising and exciting to scientists and physicians. The story can be best understood by knowing something about prebiotics.
The Forgotten Organ
Although “flora” is commonly used in the medical community to describe the healthy community of bacteria living in and on the human body, consider this term more like slang — generally speaking, “flora” means plant life. Although plant life does indeed play a role in maintaining healthy bacteria levels in the human body, the term “microbiota” is more appropriately used because it encompasses the entire community of microorganisms. These microorganisms include not only bacteria but also fungi and archaea.
The role that these microbiota play in health has been largely unknown because science has been unable to research and classify the huge number of microorganisms living in the human body as well as the diverse roles they play. Some may be essential to health; some may be harmful. For example, the past 15 years has seen an incredible amount of research on gut bacteria. As recently as 20 years ago, no one considered the colon a major player in overall health; today, scientists from all over the world are making important discoveries every year on the incredible effects of maintaining a well-balanced gut microbiota. In fact, the vast number of microbiota in the human body and the lack of knowledge surrounding this community lead researchers to refer to it as the “forgotten organ.”
The Human Gut
Hundreds and possibly thousands of species of bacteria call the human gut home and most of these bacteria live in the large intestine, where they break down carbohydrates. These cells, which are much smaller than human cells yet are several times more numerous, perform a diverse array of functions; some are good, some are not so good. Although medical science is still proving the link between healthy gut bacteria and better overall wellness, research strongly suggests that healthy bacteria not only improve regularity, mineral absorption, and gastrointestinal disorders, they also may help with obesity and reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and more. Bad bacteria, on the other hand, break down the protective wall between the lower gut and the rest of the body, resulting in weakened immunity to a range of dangerous health problems.
The good news is that multiple respected independent sources confirm people can influence the mix of good and bacteria in the gut by consuming certain nutrients which fertilize the good bacteria and kill off the bad, disease-causing microorganisms. Consuming nutrients high in the dietary fermentable fibers oligofructose and inulin soluble fiber — such as wheat, chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, leeks, onions, garlic, bananas and prebiotic-infused supplements — helps the gut’s bacterial mix stay favorable.
How Dietary Fiber Affects Gut Microbiota
Gut microbiota performs several important tasks once the bacterial mix has been favorably resolved by consuming beneficial dietary fibers. Following ingestion, the body breaks down the dietary fiber found in certain complex carbohydrates in the large intestine via fermentation; in fact, the large intestine contains more bacteria than any other place on or in the human body. Fermentation produces gasses and acids that help beneficial bacteria multiply while stifling the production of bad, disease-causing microorganisms. When these good bacteria multiply, they strengthen the walls of the lower gut. Because the lower gut produces a variety of hormones that help the body regulate optimum health conditions, it stands to reason that making adequate dietary fiber a part of your everyday diet is essential for better overall wellness.
The lower gut’s forgotten organ appears to regulate a wide range of potentially disease-causing bacteria. Recent research indicates that proper bacterial mix helps people fight obesity. A strong colon wall helps people absorb the minerals calcium and magnesium. Eating fermentable fiber reduces bad cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which fights hardened arteries and heart disease. There is now considerable evidence that a bad bacteria mix, called dysbiosis, is part of many, indeed most, chronic intestinal disorders. Prebiotics may well help reverse this bad mix of bacteria.