A 3-D representation of bacteria inside the small intestine. (Thinkstock)

A 3-D representation of bacteria inside the small intestine. (Thinkstock)

Colon’s bacteria play an important role in our health

Do you know what the gut microbiome is? Do you know what probiotics are?

Probiotic foods are among the fastest growing sectors in the health-food market because of the explosion of research being done to learn how gut bacteria affect our health.

Today I’ll share what current science says about the role of probiotics, which ones are beneficial and what we know about how different bacteria influence our health. This is the first of two articles on how to feed the gut microbiome for optimal health.

Our gut microbiome, or microbiota, is unique to each of us. It is influenced by age, genetics, environment and what we eat. Over 40 trillion microbes and thousands of kinds of bacterial line our intestine. About 70 percent of these probiotic bacteria reside in our colon.

Probiotics are defined as “live bacterial strains that when taken in adequate amounts exert a health benefit.”Probiotics are found in foods that have been fermented, such as yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, sourdough bread, miso, buttermilk, kombucha and fermented cheeses like gouda, cheddar, parmesan and goat cheese. They are also found in wine and beer.

When shopping, check the ingredient labels to see which probiotic strainor strains you are getting and verify they contain live bacteria.

The two most-studied species are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which are found in many probiotic foods and supplements. Clinically proven results for reducing severity and frequency of diarrhea (from travel, lactose intolerance or antibiotic use) are associated with these two species, as well as Saccharomyces Boulardii, a yeast. Using these to help with diarrhea is warranted.

Studies suggest probiotics work in various ways. They strengthen and regulate the immune response, feed on dietary fiber to produce protective metabolites for the colon, influence the production of serotonin, create an unlivable environment for harmful pathogens, exert anti-inflammatory activity, help make vitamins B and K, and they can even dictate what other bacteria and genes do in our body.

Much of what we hear now are speculative (and hyped up) claims of what probiotics can do for health. There are no regulations defining what food labels can or can’t say, and suppliers and distributors do not need to prove they are effective in achieving those claims.

We do not know what the exact composition of a healthy human microbiota is yet — more research is needed.

Should we take a probiotic supplement daily? The answer is “no.” Should we try to include a variety of different live bacteria from food in our diet? The answer is “yes.”

Studies confirm that gut health relies on diversity of the gut bacteria. But how do we keep our gut microbiome healthy? Look for my Nutrition Scoop column in August to find out.

Kim Larson is a registered dietitian nutritionist, founder of Total Health, www.totalhealthrd.com, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition &Dietetics.

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