How healthy is your gut? Whether you have a chronic digestive condition like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or not, chances are that with the cocktail of toxins, antibiotics and naughty foods we clog our system with nowadays, your gut health may suffer as a result.

The gut is full of bacteria; some are good and some… not so good. The healthy flora in the gut is there to help the system work properly, aid digestion and keep the unhealthy microbes in check. A good gut is a balanced gut! But sometimes illness, poor diet and courses of antibiotics can reduce the levels of healthy flora in the gut, putting the system out of whack.

When this happens the result is a negative imbalance of bacteria – more ‘bad’ bacteria than ‘good’ bacteria, which can lead to a reduced immune system, stomach upsets and general malaise. Getting your gut health back in balance by adding good bacteria in the form of probiotics can help get the system working smoothly again.

According to Dr Stefano Guandalini, “Probiotics can improve intestinal function and maintain the integrity of the lining of the intestines”. Dr Guandalini goes to say that probiotics are believed to challenge the immune system and, in the process, strengthen it. This is great news for sufferers of autoimmune conditions like Crohn’s disease. According to a review panel of experts at Yale University, there’s also evidence to suggest that probiotics may be helpful in treating ulcerative colitis and necrotising enterocolitis and in preventing diarrhoea. A recent double blind study with a placebo control reported that IBS sufferers who were given probiotics reported a reduction in symptoms of bloating, pain and discomfort. These results are promising, but more research needs to be done on just how effective probiotics are in managing digestive conditions.

While the research continues, you can still find ways to introduce probiotics into your diet and reap the healthy benefits of healthier flora. In fact, your diet probably already includes some levels of live cultures hiding in everyday foods like yoghurt.

Probiotics have been part of many cultures’ (pardon the pun) diets for centuries, with people consuming good bacteria in cheeses, yoghurt, kefir, miso soup, sauerkraut and other fermented foods. It’s easy (and often cheap!) to add these natural live cultures to your diet. Consider adding some kefir or yoghurt to your breakfast smoothie. You could try a small helping of sauerkraut or a bowl of miso soup as a nutritious afternoon snack. Upping your probiotic intake can be a great excuse to eat more cheese! But not all cheeses are created equal when it comes to happy microbes – stick to fermented cheeses like Swiss, Parmesan and Gouda. Yum!

If you don’t have a taste for the natural, fermented options above, you can still get a solid daily dose of healthy flora from store-bought probiotic drinks, capsules and powders. You can get these from the pharmacy, health food stores and even some supermarkets. They do tend to be a bit more expensive than their natural, food-based counterparts.

Like any change to your diet or treatment plan, you should discuss increasing your intake of probiotics with your doctor, especially if you have a weakened immune system, digestive condition or food sensitivities.

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