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Keeping your gut in check

Healthy options to stay on tract: Part 2

Researchers are coming to understand the complex community of bacteria and other microbes that live in the human GI tract. Called gut flora or microbiota, these microbes help with our digestion. But evidence has been growing that gut microbes may influence our health in other ways too. Studies suggest that they may play roles in obesity, type 2 diabetes, IBS, and colon cancer. They might also affect how the immune system functions. This can affect how your body fights illness and disease. Recent studies have found that microbes’ effects on the immune system may impact the development of conditions such as allergy, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis.

August 2017 NIH Digestive Health Part 2 photoProbiotic-rich foods include fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, kombucha, and more, such as certain pickles, apple cider vinegar, and yogurt, shown here. (Photo by Peter Hershey on Unsplash.)You might have heard that probiotics – live microbes that are similar to those found in the human gut – can improve your gut health. These are also called “friendly bacteria” or “good bacteria.” Probiotics are available in dietary supplements and in certain foods, such as yogurt.

There is some evidence that probiotics may be helpful in preventing diarrhea associated with antibiotics and improving symptoms of IBS, but more needs to be learned. Researchers still don’t know which probiotics are helpful and which aren’t. They also don’t know how much of the probiotics people would have to take or who would most likely benefit from them.

Certain food additives called emulsifiers are something else that may affect your gut health. Emulsifiers are added to many processed foods to improve texture and extend shelf life. But studies show they can affect our gut flora.

“Our work and other research indicate that emulsifiers and other food additives can negatively impact the microbiota and promote inflammatory diseases,” says Georgia State University’s Dr. Andrew Gewirtz. His group has been studying the relationships between food additives, gut bacteria, and disease in mice. The team also plans to examine how different food additives may affect people.

Based on what his team and others have found, Gewirtz advises, “The take home message: Eat a balanced diet and less processed foods.”

“The GI system is complicated and such an important part of our health,” says Dr. Lin Chang, a GI expert at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It takes a real partnership between patient and doctor to get to the root of issues. Everyone has to find a healthy routine that works for them.”

She encourages you to take an active role in finding a doctor who makes you feel comfortable. The right doctor will listen carefully to your health history and symptoms. You can help keep your gut in check by talking with your doctor and – together – making the right choices for you.

Article adapted from the National Institutes of Health May 2017 News in Health, available online at newsinhealth.nih.gov.