Bacteria usually have a bad reputation among human beings. Many of these microorganisms can cause us a world of discomfort, illness, and suffering. However, there are 'good' ones too! These beneficial bacteria live in our bodies, predominantly in our gut which can house as many as trillions of microorganisms. This has led to them being referred to as our gut microbiome.
Your gut does not just function as a 'food processing tube' that digests food and absorbs nutrients. With the help of the gut microbiome, your gut functions much more effectively in more than one way – with the help of the gut microbiome, your digestive system is able to produce and absorb important nutrients such as several B vitamins and Vitamin K. Another important role that the gut microbiome plays is in boosting your immunity against various forms of infections and diseases.
First line of defence
In general, good immunity stems from good health, which is positively influenced by leading a healthy lifestyle that incorporates healthy eating and regular performing physical activity. However, too many tend to neglect their digestive health.
"The gut microbiome plays a critical role in your overall health and well-being," reveals Associate Professor Dr Raja Affendi Bin Raja Ali, Consultant Physician and Gastroenterologist at the Hospital Canselor Tuanku Muhriz, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) Medical Centre.
The most important functional role that the gut microbiome plays is probably as our 'defender' – it is your body's first line of defence against various infections. This was proven in a study conducted in New Zealand that showed how daily supplementation with probiotics reduced the duration and incidence of infections among elite rugby players.
The immunity benefits are not limited to just highly-trained rugby players. One of the most common probiotic strains, Lactobacillus, has also been proven to be effective in helping to reduce upper respiratory infections and the symptoms of fever and cough in children.
"A study performed in 2010 found that daily supplementation with Lactobacillus actually reduced the frequency of upper respiratory infections and the symptoms of fever and cough experienced by children aged between 1-4 years," divulges Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi Raja Ali.
"Another study conducted in 2011 to observe the effects of Lactobacillus in healthy adults who received influenza vaccination yielded positive results as well. It showed that consuming Lactobacillus daily significantly boosted the immune response of a large percentage of the group that participated in the study."
This is believed to be due to the protective role of probiotics against infections that are mainly transmitted via the mucosal membrane, such as the influenza virus. The research further suggested that by consuming Lactobacillus as a probiotic, you can expect an improvement of certain antigen-specific responses that are beneficial to your body.
Big things come in small packages
"We believed that using Lactobacillus is a safe and effective way to improve your body's immune function, by augmenting the response to challenges," says Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi. "A healthy diet is important – not only should you ensure that you eat sufficient probiotics, prebiotics are just as important."
Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi went on to add that similar results were found in another study on common infectious diseases in toddlers who were sent to day care. The study showed positive results, as it demonstrated a reduced number of incidences of illness occurring among the toddlers.
"While it is true that probiotics can, and do, play a beneficial role in boosting your immunity, that does not mean that it is a miracle supplement that will prevent you from ever falling sick!" cautions Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi.
"Leading a healthy lifestyle is the single best thing you can do to ensure you lower your risk of falling ill. You should also teach your child about the importance of hygiene and certain basic precautions he or she can take in order not to succumb to illness."
"Some basic things you can do include getting both yourself and your child vaccinated, practice good personal hygiene, and avoiding close contact with people who are sick," advises Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi.
"Other good habits you should cultivate (and encourage your child to learn) include making it a habit to wash your hands often, especially before eating or after touching surfaces that may be contaminated with germs. Make it a point to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with your hands unless you are sure that they are clean."
He went on to add that if you are sick yourself, the best thing to do is stay at home; this will prevent the illness from being spread to other people. However, if you do need to go out, do use a face mask. You should also form the habit of covering your mouth and nose whenever you sneeze as this will limit the spread of any germs.
"Remember, consume probiotics might help to boost your immunity but do not expect it to completely prevent illnesses if you do not take care of your own health or hygiene," states Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi.
Did you Know?
A good source of probiotics include cultured milk drinks, yogurt, tempeh, and fermented vegetables (e.g. kimchi, acar, Chinese hum choy). Prebiotics are essentially food for probiotics and can be found in high fibre foods such as onions, garlic, banana, shallots, leeks, asparagus, and whole grains.
A study on patients with chronic constipation found a link between psychiatric disorders and chronic functional constipation. The study uncovered the fact that prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders in constipated patients is much higher than the general population.