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Gut, set, go
Recent scientific discoveries reveal a much larger and more critical role of the 100 trillion bacteria in our gut than just digesting last night's rajma and chhole.
When it comes to maintaining good health it's our heart health that dominates our attention. But how many times have you heard a doctor tell you to take care of your gut? Scientific evidence is now bringing to light how our gut performs some life saving jobs.
The recent Human Microbiome and the Meta Hit projects in the US and Europe revealed that human beings harbour at least 100 trillion microbial cells and quadrillion viruses, which if opened up and laid out flat, would cover a tennis court. This highly complex collection of micro-organisms varies in numbers and composition in the human body, with maximum numbers being found in the digestive system or gut, forming an ecosystem called the gut flora.
"If placed on a scale, the gut flora would weigh about 2 kg, functioning virtually like an organ within an organ. The gut microbiome has 150 times the genetic content of the human body, and that in fact is a testament of its importance, " says Neerja Hajela, head of science at Yakult Danone India.
With more than 70 per cent of the immune cells located in the gut, the intestinal microflora plays a significant role in priming the innate and acquired immune system, our major defence force against disease and infection. Our intestinal bacteria also ensure proper digestion of food and absorption of nutrients, reduction of carcinogens or cancer-causing substances that are found in the diet, creating a natural barrier that acts against harmful bacteria, antigens and toxin, production of vitamins such as biotin and vitamin K for the host and maintaining proper bowel movement by improving gut motility.
Various disease states are profoundly influenced by the levels of bacteria present in the gut. Decreased microbial diversity in infancy is associated with an increase in atopic disease later in childhood.
Chronic autoimmune inflammatory diseases such as celiac disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity may also be associated with an altered gut flora. A recent study in twins revealed that reduced abundance of a particular commensal bacteria and an increased number of harmful bacteria is associated with Crohn's disease.
Hajela says, "There is no consensus on what constitutes an ideal gut flora but beneficial bacteria should account for 85 per cent of the total gut microflora. "
Experts say that although the intestinal microbiota remains relatively stable throughout our life, it is often negatively influenced by poor diet and lifestyle habits, illness, indiscriminate use of antibiotics and stress.
Among the various proposed interventions, probiotics offer most promise. Probiotics are defined as "live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host" (FAO/WHO). " These organisms reach the intestine alive, in numbers sufficient enough to elicit a beneficial effect on the host.
During their transition through the gastro intestinal tract they favourably modify the composition and metabolic activities of the gut flora and thereby help restore the balance of the disturbed gut flora.
The concept of probiotics goes back to the early 20th century when the famous Russian Nobel laureate Dr Elie Metchnikoff, proposed that bacteria were, in fact, good for health.
Fascinated by the unusual longevity of Bulgarian farmers who virtually lived on fermented milk, he published a book, Prolongation of life where he hypothesised that lactic acid bacteria can increase an individual's the life span because of their tremendous health promoting effects. The term Probiotics which literally means "for life" was introduced much later in 1965.
Dr S K Sarin, professor of gastroenterology at the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences says the intestinal flora is like a separate organ. "They also prove highly beneficial against antibiotic induced diarrhoea. Antibiotics are used to kill harmful bacteria but they end up killing huge number of healthy bacteria as well. Probiotics help to increase beneficial bacteria, " says Sarin.
Very often, however, people get confused and think that all probiotics have the same effect, the same benefit and in fact act in the same manner. "They are wrong. Probiotic benefits are largely dependent on the strain of the bacteria and vary greatly from strain to strain. It is therefore important that the health effects of each probiotic strain are scientifically validated, " says Hajela.
Little is known about the optimal amount of live probiotic bacteria that is required to be present in the product to derive the defined health benefit but experts recommend at least one billion live organisms.
Research in the past decade has validated the utility of probiotics as an important therapy for gastro intestinal diseases such as diarrhoea, constipation, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), treatment and prevention of allergic disorders, chronic inflammatory diseases, prevention of cancers, immune stimulation and reduction of respiratory diseases.
With growing interest in the area of probiotics and the recent entry of probiotic foods in the country, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) recently established guidelines for probiotic foods that would ensure product safety and quality of probiotic products.
THE RIGHT BACTERIA BEVERAGE
According to ICMR guidelines, for any true probiotic it is important that the complete name of the probiotic bacteria (genus, species and strain), the number of live/ viable organisms in the product, storage conditions, shelf life and scientifically proven health benefits will have to be mentioned on the product label. Experts from the National Institute of Nutrition say all probiotics strains will have to be tested to assess its undesirable side-effects. The global probiotic market is expected to be worth $32. 6 billion by 2014. The probiotic product industry in India, however, was estimated to be around Rs 20. 6 million at present with a projected annual growth rate of 22. 6 per cent until 2015.
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