Gut bacteria are microorganisms that live in our intestines and consist of "good" or beneficial ones and "bad" bacteria or pathogenic (disease producing) ones. The good bacteria are vital for not only our digestive process but also our health in general. Part of their role includes helping to produce the vitamins and important nutrients that are essential for life as well as send signals to our brain and immune system.
Imbalanced Gut Bacteria? A Closer Look at Why
An imbalance of gut bacteria, that is, a disproportionate increase in the number of bad bacteria and a decrease in the good ones, would cause an imbalance and would have a negative impact on our health. This can be caused by:
Antibiotics – help us get better by killing disease-causing microorganisms. However, they kill all types of bacteria – the good and the bad – and can cause bacterial imbalance in the gut.
Excessive use of NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, e.g. Ibuprofen, Naproxen, and mefenamic acid) – this class of drugs can relieve symptoms of headaches, arthritis, and colds. However, prolonged or excessive use of NSAIDs comes with some pretty serious risks which include gastric ulcers and the possibility of developing life-threatening intestinal bleeding. Needless to say, this has a dire effect on the balance of gut bacteria.
Bad dietary habits – what you eat will greatly influence your digestive system. That means limiting foods that are highly processed, are high in sugar, fats, and salt and the inadequate intake of dietary fibre.
Smoking – smoking can cause an imbalance of gut bacteria in addition to other obvious health-risks associated with smoking.
Stress – stress is a major factor in the development of various gastrointestinal diseases such as irritable bowel disease, gastritis, and inflammatory bowel disease. Studies have shown that even mild stress can tip the microbial balance in the gut, making one more vulnerable to infectious disease and triggering reactions due to the negative feedback to the central nervous system.
So, how can one attain a balance in gut bacteria? Here are some simple tips to help you start off:
- Eat enough dietary fibre – this is an essential step for good digestive health. Dietary fibre can be easily found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes. Dietary fibre provides nutrition and promotes the growth of good bacteria.
In addition, a high-fibre diet helps to regulate bowel movement by increasing stool bulk. It also lowers the risk of haemorrhoids and diverticular disease of the colon.
- Eat foods rich in probiotics (good bacteria) – Topping up on probiotics is as simple as eating fermented food products such as tempeh, kimchi, miso, yoghurt, and cultured milk drinks. By including these foods in your daily diet, you will ensure a daily supply of probiotics to help stimulate better digestion and boost your immunity.
Prebiotics are essential fibres that serve as 'food' for probiotics. Sources of prebiotics include inulin and oligofructose-enriched foods like onion, garlic, and asparagus.
- Exercise for optimal gut health – Getting enough daily physical activity is also important as it helps you to maintain regular bowel movement and relieves constipation. The Malaysian Dietary Guideline recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity five to six days per week. This includes activities such as brisk walking, cycling, aerobic exercise, and swimming. Be careful not to exercise after a heavy meal in order to avoid heartburn or indigestion.
- Smoking cessation – in addition to well-known smoking risks such as lung cancer, smoking also contributes to common digestive disorders such as heartburn, GERD, peptic ulcers, and throat cancer. If you have tried to quit unsuccessfully on your own, do speak to your doctor for advice.
- Manage stress well – learn to deal with stress. Some easy-to-follow tips include getting sufficient sleep (recommended 7-8 hours a day), share your joys and sorrows with a friend or a loved one, take a break (find a relaxing hobby, listen to music, or go for a vacation), get at least 30 minutes of exercise daily and be more physically active.
Balanced Life, Balanced Gut Bacteria
By focusing on living a healthy lifestyle, you will successfully create a healthy gut environment which promotes a balance of gut bacteria. The lifestyle modifications may take some getting use to, but the results will certainly be worthwhile. After all, prevention is better than cure, and ensuring that you have balanced gut bacteria can help prevent serious illnesses and digestive complications.