Although it’s often a subject shunned by polite society, what happens in your bowels is becoming increasingly an object of open discussion. The growth of interest in fermentation and gut bacteria is linked to an awareness of a relationship between improved health and how what we eat is processed in our gut. It goes without saying that we are what we eat. This maxim reflects the traditional understanding that the quality of the food we consume is a factor in our health. But science is increasingly demonstrating that the nutrients contained in our meals rely on a range of microbes to extract the maximum benefit from them.
While a discussion centered on healthy eating is normally something that can be sanitized, with the microbiome (the human microbial population), sooner or later human waste has to be discussed. What happens all through the intestinal tract including the colon has a key part to play in human health. Often the state of your own faecal matter (poo) can be a good indicator of what’s going on inside you. If you have a healthy diet and your food is being digested properly, the chances are you that you have a good quality and quantity of helpful bacteria in your system. There are a number of conditions that lead to the loss of a significant proportion of useful gut bacteria, these include the overuse of antibiotics.
Faecal Microbial Transplant (FMT) is a treatment used in a limited number of clinical cases, but its application demonstrates just how crucial gut bacteria is. As its name suggests, FMT is the transplanting of bacteria and yeasts from a person with a healthy digestive function into a person that has a significant lack of the necessary microbes. When one of the world’s best triathletes, Lesley Paterson contracted Lyme Disease, she turned to FMT as an alternative solution. Lyme Disease often leads to tiredness and low energy in those infected, and antibiotics are often prescribed as part of the treatment. Antibiotics have a number of possible side effects including massive reduction in gut bacteria, often further lowering the body’s natural resistance further. In some cases FMT is thought to offer an effective yet inexpensive solution with few negative side effects. Lesley Paterson’s story can be found on the BBC website.
There may be a relationship between kefir and obesity.
I’m becoming increasingly convinced of the benefit of fermentation, that enriching beneficial gut bacteria has widespread effects on wellbeing and health. I’m still near the beginning of this journey and learning all the time. I’ve posted a series of articles linked to kefir, not because I’m an expert, but based of the apparent benefits accrued over the last two months from a small glass of kefir each day. I should also say that Maggie has lost a lot of weight over the time she has been drinking kefir, but, she has also been exercising. However weight loss isn’t my only reason for writing about this subject. A few months ago I felt obliged to take a course of antibiotics, I think it was a mistake ( I am aware of the downsides of this kind of medication) but it’s water under the bridge now. The subsequent decline in my overall health was striking. I started to have trouble concentrating and sleeping, I got a cold, suffered from reflux and saw an augmentation in weight.
I didn’t really connect these things with the antibiotics until I noticed that my bowel movements changed significantly. If you are new to the gut bacteria scene you might feel a little uncomfortable around talk about bowel movements, don’t be. A regular healthy bowel movement is one of the signs of a healthy balance in gut bacteria. So when I noticed I wasn’t going to the toilet regularly I though about the possible impact of antibiotics on my gut. I started to take kefir more regularly whilst keeping my usual prebiotic and probiotic consumption at the same level. The difference was gradual but pretty much everything started to improve after about five days. Two months later things are back where there were before the antibiotics. I’m much healthier, bowels are back to normal and……..I’ve lost weight without any exercise.
This isn’t a morality narrative about the harm of antibiotics. I believe antibiotics represent a life saving technology, and in the right place and time are essential. It’s their inappropriate overuse which I think is harmful.
My own anecdote is that I think it took two months to return the state of my gut bacteria to somewhere like normal, and I am a daily consumer of natural prebiotics and probiotics. In all of this story things pretty much fitted my modest understanding of the underlying science except the weight loss. I know that lack of diversity in gut bacteria is correlated with obesity generally but I hadn’t come across any research papers linking kefir to weight loss. If you can improve your gut health and pull your body weight closer to its optimum level this has to be a win-win. So I started to look through the scientific literature. The most recent research is featured here.
The overuse of antibiotics is a major health concern. Probiotics may support the lower consumption of antibiotics by boosting overall health in humans and animals.
I am in the process of writing a basic guide to probiotics, but a general description is,
‘microorganisms contained in some food and supplements that have proven and assumed benefits to human and animal health’.
A key point at the outset is that it is hard to prove causality in such matters. Demonstrating correlation (people that have particular gut bacteria tend to have or not have a particular illness) is much simpler. The evidence linking probiotics and health is both causal and correlational. The point of probiotics is to change (improve) the profile of gut flora so that it has more positive and less negative microorganisms. This is a long road of which we are at the beginning.
Antibiotics are drugs designed to destroy or inhibit the growth of bacteria harmful to humans, animals or other organisms. I acknowledge the potential lifesaving benefits of antibiotics, they are an important part of modern healthcare. But the widespread overuse of antibiotics in industrialized societies is creating superbugs, bacteria that are resistant to all known antibiotics. This problem was the subject of the film Resistance which I recently saw on Netflix. The issue of superbugs is not new and the discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming discussed resistance in the mid 1940s. If you subject bacteria to an effective antibiotics most will die off, but surviving bacteria can develop resistance to that antibiotic. If you repeat the process often enough you risk creating bacteria over time, that become resistant to every antibiotic they have been exposed to.
Sometimes humans are given antibiotics when they are not needed, and so we may carry around bacteria that have a resistance to some antibiotics, this is a problem in itself. A key point that the film Resistance makes is that contemporary farming methods can involve the routine administration of antibiotics to hundreds of millions of animals every year. Antibiotics appear to make some animals grow bigger, thus increasing their cash value. However intensively farmed animals can live in insanitary conditions, exposed to fecal matter for most of their lives. Forcing animals to live in an environment where high levels of dangerous bacteria are present, thus necessitating the use of antibiotics as a routine measure, can be described as a perfect breeding ground for superbugs.
The standards of animal welfare vary from country to country and the use of antibiotics in the EU generally is lower than some other parts of the world. But it’s still a major problem according to a recent report. Conceptually the idea of eating animals is increasingly unacceptable to many people. However the logic of forcing animals to live in terrible conditions their whole lives, only sustained by large amounts of antibiotics is obviously flawed. Not only are people eating animals that have endured life long suffering underpinned by the consumption of drugs. But this process may also be creating bacteria resistant to those drugs. The use of last-resort antibiotics for humans such as colostin, is increasing according to official data. When colostin is used it can indicate other antibiotics were ineffective against the harmful bacteria.
So what has this got to do with fermentation and probiotics? Firstly antibiotics generally kill and inhibited some good bacteria. Where health is at risk this is clearly an appropriate course of action. However as the importance of gut flora to health becomes better understood we should consider the need to maintain gut bacteria at healthy levels. Secondly the better our overall health the lower the risk of illness and presumably the less need there will be to take antibiotics. Just to be clear, probiotics are not a substitute for antibiotics, there are some very dangerous bacteria in our environment for which antibiotics may be the only cure. My position is to abandon the overuse of antibiotics in animals and humans so that when we (and animals) get really sick we will have antibiotic treatments that continue to work. The third point is eating animals that have lived a life in potentially dangerous bacteria, sustained by routine antibiotic consumption seems irrational. Wouldn’t it make more sense to maintain animals in healthy conditions, with feed rich in probiotics, reducing the need for antibiotics in all but essential cases?