"All disease begins in the gut." – Hippocrates
This quote may be over 2,500 years old, and it points out quite clearly that our gut, or rather good digestive health, is vital for our overall physical and mental well-being. In fact, a good digestive system can also ensures that our immune system functions optimally.
Unfortunately, many Malaysians tend to neglect their digestive health. This neglect comes in the form of overindulging in unhealthy foods such as deep fried and oily food which are fattening, and foods that are high in sugar or salt content. Our society also generally leads a sedentary lifestyle as we lack daily physical exercise. This has resulted in Malaysia achieving the highest obesity rate in South East Asia. Such unhealthy lifestyle factors will have a negative impact on one's digestive health and immune system.
Associate Professor Dr Raja Affendi Bin Raja Ali, Consultant Physician and Gastroenterologist at the Hospital Canselor Tuanku Muhriz, Pusat Perubatan Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (PPUKM) remarks, "In general, good immunity stems from good health, which is positively influenced by leading a healthy lifestyle that incorporates healthy eating habits and regular physical activity. However, many do not realise that immunity is closely related to their digestive health."
"The gut microbiome plays a critical role in your overall health and well-being, and the good bacteria that reside in our gut provide us with many beneficial functions for our body and mind. The most important functional role it plays is being our body's 'defender', where it acts as the first line of defence against various diseases and infections. For example, a study performed in New Zealand showed how daily intake of probiotics reduced the duration and incidence of infections among elite rugby players," reveals Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi.
Benefiting kids and adults
A study in 2010 showed that daily intake of Lactobacillus was effective in reducing the frequency of upper respiratory infections and the symptoms of fever and cough in children aged between 1-4 years. Subsequently, in 2011, another study on healthy adults showed that a large percentage of the group who received influenza vaccination and consumed Lactobacillus daily received a significant boost in their immune response.
"Probiotics play a protective role against infections that are mainly transmitted via the mucosal membrane, such as the influenza virus. The research further suggested that by consuming Lactobacillus, you can expect an improvement of certain antigen-specific responses that are beneficial to your body," Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi elaborates.
So small yet so powerful
Probiotics are easily found in cultured milk drinks, yogurt, tempeh, and fermented vegetables (e.g. kimchi or acar). The effectiveness of these good bacteria is being further researched in an ongoing local study conducted at PPUKM led by Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi. The research has thus far showed clear and promising evidence that the Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus casei strains are noticeably effective in promoting better digestive health and has furthermore shown great potential to give positive influence to the immune system.
The initial results of this ongoing study shows improvement in digestive health, with notable improvements in reducing intestinal transit time (ITT). Intestinal transit time is the time taken for food to travel from your mouth through your digestive tract and out of your body through your rectum. The initial research results also included significantly improved constipation symptoms among subjects who are healthy and those who have constipation. With improved ITT, the toxin build-up that occurred as a result of constipation is minimised and therefore, the digestive system is able to absorb the food nutrients more effectively. On top of that, the researchers also found a positive relation between daily consumption of cultured milk drinks and the immune system of the research subjects.
However, in order for probiotics to flourish, it also needs food known as prebiotics. Prebiotics can be found in high fibre foods such as whole grains, onions, garlic, banana, shallots, leeks, and asparagus.
"I am convinced that probiotics in the form of Lactobacillus is a safe and eﬀective way to improve your immunity, as it helps strengthen the body's response toward infections. However, we would like to see further and more comprehensive research on this," says Assoc Prof Dr Raja Aﬀendi.
"Remember, although consuming probiotics may help to boost your immune system, do not expect it to completely prevent illnesses. It is not an ultimate shield for diseases and illnesses. It is critical that you make it a point to take care of your own health by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting sufficient sleep and managing your stress levels. More importantly, don't forget that leading a healthy lifestyle is just as important as it will help to ensure you lower your risk of falling ill," advises Assoc Prof Dr Raja Affendi.