While we're used to thinking of bacteria solely as agents of devastating diseases, their beneficial capacities are just as remarkable.

Research over the last 10 years has revealed a great deal about the nature of bacterial flora — the microorganisms that live in our digestive system — and the vital role they play in our health. Because the immune system is largely housed in the intestines, it makes sense that the 100 trillion (100,000,000,000,000!) bacteria in your gut help to determine the body's ability to fight infection and prevent disease.

Here are some of their other key health benefits:

• Bacteria can improve nutrient absorption.

Lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacteria have been shown to improve the body's ability to absorb calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, and other vitamins and minerals.

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• Bacteria can ward off infection.

In 1988, a U.S. surgeon general report announced that "normal microbial flora provide a passive mechanism to prevent infection" and since then, a number of studies have strengthened that finding. In 2008, an NIH study confirmed that "good bacteria" housed in the gut can help defend the body against infection. And in 2012, scientists at Arizona State University found that certain strains of bacteria can be beneficial in preventing food-borne infection.

• Bacteria produce vitamins.

Not only do bacteria improve nutrient absorption, they also produce vitamins! Bifidobacteria and lactic acid bacteria (LAB) produce B-complex vitamins, including biotin, thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), and cobalamin (B12), as well as folic acid and vitamin K.

Bad bacteria's effect on your gut:

We know all too well that not all bacteria are beneficial, however. They're also incredibly resilient. As a defense mechanism, bacteria are able to mutate and become more resistant to treatments aimed at destroying them. Then, once successfully transformed, they are able to "communicate" their strategy to other strains of bacteria and multiply.

If harmful bacteria successfully infiltrate the gut, this destroys the good bacteria and can compromise the protective filtering system within the intestines. This is known as intestinal permeability — or "leaky gut" — and it allows all sorts of macromolecules and toxins, that would normally have been kept within the gastrointestinal tract and eliminated, into the blood stream. Then, because blood transports nutrients and vital components like oxygen throughout the body, these unfiltered elements and toxins in the blood stream are transported to the vital organs.

Five ways to establish gut health:

1. Add live probiotics.

A daily dose of live probiotics can help "seal" a leaky gut and restore essential bacteria. When choosing a probiotic supplement, look for one that provides multiple strains over a single strain.

Alternatively, try eating fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchee, kefir, sauerkraut, and pickled vegetables, which are chock-full of probiotics, to introduce more good bacteria to the gut.

2. Eat more fiber.

Dietary fiber can help move unwanted organisms out of your intestines. Aim for 35 to 40 grams per day of a combination of both soluble and insoluble fiber.

Most people consume far less fiber than this per day, so examine your food choices and add more high-fiber foods to your plate wherever possible.

3. Avoid processed and refined foods.

A diet loaded with processed and refined foods can wreak havoc on the gut by encouraging harmful bacteria to multiply. Consume as much "whole" or non-processed food as possible to prevent harmful bacteria from taking over and to reap optimal nutritional benefits.

4. Cut back on NSAIDs.

Regular use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or aspirin can cause a massive disruption of the gut flora. NSAIDs simultaneously reduce pain and prevent healing, and because the lining of the intestines is repaired and replaced every three to five days, the mechanism of NSAIDs dangerously interrupts and blocks that process.

5. Supplement with glutathione and glutamine.

Glutathione (GSH) is the most abundant of the endogenous, or self-made, antioxidants in the body and plays a major role in the detoxification process. When glutathione levels become depleted as the liver works to remove toxins, supplementing the body's own supply of glutathione can boost its ability to remove toxins from the body.

Glutamine is an amino acid that helps tissues recover from damage — particularly in the GI tract. A glutamine supplement will help reestablish good gut mucosa and gut lining.

By making smart choices about diet and nutrition, it's possible to improve the integrity of the gut. Be good to your gut, and your gut will be good to you!


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