“Do I need to cleanse my gut?” and other thoughts about bacteria

If you’ve seen commercials on TV or scanned the dairy aisle at your local grocery store, you may have noticed the recent trend encouraging people to try supplements, yogurts and other products intended to help people improve their health by cleansing their gastrointestinal (GI) tract. As a dietitian, I get many questions from my clients about the benefits of GI cleansing, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about what your gut does and does not need to be healthy. This is great information to share with your employees and also gives you the knowledge and tools to engage with them on this topic.

Our GI tract stretches from our mouth to our colon and has the important functions of helping us ingest and utilize food and fluids to keep us alive. The gut is also the largest immune organ in the body, accounting for 25 percent of the body’s immune cells and providing 50 percent of the body’s immune response. That means the health of your GI tract plays a huge role in your overall health and wellness. There are about 100 trillion bacteria in our intestines, with between 400 and 500 species of bacteria. This is 10 times more bacteria than the number of human cells in the body! This assembly of intestinal bacteria is called the intestinal flora, and many companies offer products intended to enhance or cleanse it in order to improve your health. But are these products worth it?

Various factors may affect the quality of our intestinal flora by increasing levels of harmful bacteria and throwing our gut out of balance:

  • Unbalanced diet
  • Stress levels
  • Fatigue
  • Aging
  • Taking antibiotics

This is where probiotics come in. Otherwise known as “good bacteria,” probiotics are tiny microorganisms that are believed to provide various health benefits when consumed. They are live, active cultures that can populate or change the intestinal bacteria and ultimately affect the quality of the gut flora. Enhancing intestinal flora can have a large impact when it comes to keeping us healthy and thriving on a daily basis.

Probiotics may be beneficial and boost overall health by improving immunity, promoting g GI health, improving digestion and reducing negative symptoms of lactose intolerance. Probiotics are sold in pill form, but are they really worth the investment? Anyone considering adding supplements to their diet should check with their doctor first.

Before taking a pill, consider food sources as a preliminary approach to adding probiotics to your diet. Fermented dairy foods contain live cultures (including yogurt, kefir and some aged cheeses), as do various non-dairy foods such as fermented vegetables (e.g., kimchi, sauerkraut) and fermented soy products (e.g., miso, tempeh and some soy beverages).

Then, there are prebiotics, or “good bacteria” promoters, which are important because they help promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Consuming prebiotics may also help improve GI health and possibly enhance calcium absorption. Prebiotics can be found in foods such as bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, soybeans and whole-wheat items.

So, does anyone, including your employees, need to enhance or cleanse the bacteria in their gut?

As noted above, pre- and probiotics can help maintain a healthy GI tract, especially when obtained through food sources. But what about trendy products marketed to “cleanse the gut?” Our bodies are well equipped to cleanse themselves when we eat a balanced diet and do a good job managing our mental and physical health. “Cleanses” may provide a temporary feeling of well-being, but have not been shown to have long-lasting benefits and may even be harmful in some cases. Additionally, who knows what you are actually drinking when you purchase an expensive bottle of “Magic Gut Cleanse?”

The bottom line is if someone has a healthy digestive system, they most likely do not need to invest in probiotic supplements. And, most individuals should stay away from products marketed as “gut cleanses” and instead focus on trying to add pre- and probiotic foods into their diet by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and drinking lots of water. This is a much healthier and safer way to reap the same benefits.

To learn more about how an on-site registered dietitian nutritionist may be beneficial for your organization, visit optum.com.

The information provided in this handout is for informational purposes only and is not and a substitute for your doctor’s care. Before making any changes to your diet and exercise regimen, speak with your doctor first to see how the information provided may or may not be right for you.

 

 

Sources:
Eatright.Org: Prebiotics and Probiotics, the Dynamic Duo.
http://www.eatright.org/resource/food/vitamins-and-supplements/nutrient-rich-foods/prebiotics-and-probiotics-the-dynamic-duo Accessed on 8/19/2015.
Today’s Dietitian. Probiotics’ Potential.
http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/011211p20.shtml Accessed 8/19/2015.
Mayo Clinic. Consumer Health – Do I need to take probiotics and prebiotics in my diet?
http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/expert-answers/probiotics/faq-20058065 Accessed on 8/19/2015.
USDA. To Your Health: Probiotics and Prebiotics.
http://www.ars.usda.gov/News/docs.htm?docid=13431 Accessed on 8/19/2015.
NIH’s National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Care: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/probiotics/introduction.htm. Accessed on 8/20/15.

 

 

About the Author:

Valerie Machinist, MS, RDN, LDN

Product Director, On-Site Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Services

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