100 Trillion “Guests”
You may know about the many millions of “other” cells in your body, ones that don’t carry your DNA. But I’m talking about the 3 to 4 pounds of gut bacteria in your colon or large intestine. We are talking 10 times the number of human cells – approximately 100 trillion microbial cells, and more than 600 different species! Not only are most of us rather mindless in what we eat, we’re ignorant of what these microbes do for us – and what they need in order to do it!
We need a gut bug appreciation week.
The bacteria residing in our intestines perform some amazing stunts for our benefit (and theirs). Studies tell us that, among other things, these microbes:
- help develop the infant’s GI tract and immune system
- resist colonization by problematic microbes (keep the bad guys down)
- help normalize the immune response
- manufacture vitamins and other nutritional factors
- stimulate gut motility (bowel movements)
For example, you know that E. coli is associated with serious illness when it contaminates food. Most bacteria can cause major problems when they are in the wrong place, that is, outside the colon. Within the colon, E. coli is a normal inhabitant.
You may also have heard of Lactobacillus acidophilus (Geshundheit.) Unlike E. coli, this fellow is one of the well-studied probiotic (live microbial supplements) species and the first to show up in popular yogurts. For healthy gut maintenance, daily yogurt has been a good idea. But not that many of us have healthy bowels these days, so we often need more intense “inoculation” with good bugs!
For many years now, probiotic supplements have been helping people’s bellies feel better and function more reliably. One benefit of taking probiotics is to help encourage microbial diversity, especially if the probiotic supplement is of mixed species. In ecological terms, it is more stable to have diverse populations in any ecosystem. The same is true for the microbiome, the ecosystem of microbes in the GI tract. So eating a diverse, plant-based diet to provide a variety of feedstuffs for them as well as us, helps their populations remain balanced and robust.
Studies show that probiotic use is associated with improvements in antibiotic associated diarrhea, ulcerative colitis, allergy, and many other health concerns.
These 100 trillion guests should be welcomed and made comfortable. There is much more to this bug story. Stay tuned!
~ Terry Pollock