"We couldn’t live without bacteria, even though they’re minute. In fact, thousands could comfortably fit on this full-stop."
Why do we need good bacteria?
100 trillion bacteria live in and on your body. Some are present on the surface of the skin and inside the mouth, nose and urogenital tract – but most live within your gut. Here the good bacteria can neutralise toxins, inhibit yeast and bad bacteria in the gut, whilst working to keep the gut healthy as well as beneficially influencing the immune system.
What does the gut flora do?
The gut flora helps to neutralise some of the toxic by-products of digestion, reduce harmful substances (such as toxins and carcinogens), and discourage 'bad' bacteria and yeasts. It also helps to stimulate the digestive process and aid the absorption of nutrients, as well as producing vitamins including B and K. In addition, the by-products of the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut help regulate the growth of the gut cells and keep them healthy.
The gut contains as many as 1,000 different species of microbes. Some of the more well-known intestinal pathogens include:
Salmonella and Campylobacter (which account for most cases of food poisoning in the UK) Clostridium difficile (a risk during and after antibiotics).
Particular types of Escherichia coli which can cause diarrhoea – although many strains can live harmlessly in the gut.
Keeping your immune in tune
The majority of the body's immune system is located within the digestive system. Straight after birth, the gut flora is important in training the immune system to recognise and fight harmful bacteria, thus helping to protect the body from disease.
The use of the word 'flora' to describe gut bacteria is apt. Just as weeds compete for space and nutrients in a garden and 'choke out' healthy plants, so 'bad' bacteria can behave the same way in the intestines, potentially threatening digestive – and therefore overall – health. In a healthy gut flora, the activities of the good bacteria predominate over those that are considered more harmful.
Keeping a balance
A number of health and lifestyle factors can have a negative impact on the gut flora: an unhealthy diet, stress, illness (particularly diarrhoea), travel and just getting older.
To keep a healthy balance, aim to eat a well-balanced diet, keep stress levels as low as possible, observe good food hygiene – and be careful what you eat and drink when on holiday.
Prebiotic foods can encourage your own beneficial bacteria in the gut multiply.