Our intestine acts as filter and protector for the rest of our body, it nourishes itself and all the cells of the body, so its performance, good or bad, has consequences for all the body’s organs.
The intestine has been referred to as the second brain. It contains over 100 million neurons, secretes at least 20 neurotransmitters, produces 70 – 85% of of the body’s immune system cells and hosts 100 trillion bacteria.
It is easy to see how the intestinal tract plays a critical role, as it is essentially the core of our fundamental health. Any intestinal dysfunction can become the first weak link to destabilizing our overall wellbeing and must be addressed immediately. The more our intestinal system is malnourished, the more we move away from a balanced health. When the intestinal system suffers, a chain reaction can start that can lead to allergies, migraines, circulation problems, etc. The intestine is almost always the “hidden” cause behind our body’s suffering.
The importance of a Healthy Intestine
Maintaining a healthy intestinal flora is crucial in maintaining a healthy body. An unhealthy intestine can lead to an increase in an innumerable amount of health problems for the intestinal tract such as: colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, Crohn’s, constipation, diarrhea, infections caused by h. pylori, etc.
But it does not end there. Problems within the intestine can manifest themselves in the mucous membranes of the skin tissue, the articular system, vagina, urinary, sinus, pharynx, larynx, eyes, ears and throat; can be expressed through ear, nose, throat, urinary, lung and gynecological infections or even as hives and eczema.
There are even problems more severe that can be aggravated by intestinal disorders such as articular sicknesses (polyarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and spondylarthritis), allergies, fibromyalgia, and immune system diseases (lupus, diabetes, multiple sclerosis).
Within the colon is our gut microbiota (gut flora), a micro ecosystem consisting of about 500 or 1000 different species of bacteria, which exist in symbiosis with us, the hosts. A healthy flora means there are more than enough friendly bacteria, such as bifidobacteria, to inhibit the growth of pathogens and harmful bacteria. When these harmful bacteria start to overrun the positive bacteria, it can lead to damaging consequences in the colon and the rest of the body.
When a healthy and balanced gut flora ferments carbohydrates to produce short chain fatty acids it leads to the production of vitamin K, improved water absorption in the colon, improved mineral asorption and lower pH levels in the colon. A healty gut flora also stimulates the immune system and offers protection.
Another function of the gut flora is to occupy space. The more space occupied by good bacteria, the less can be occupied by viruses, harmful bacteria, or parasites. If friendly bacteria occupy all the good spots on the emergence of a pathogen, then the pathogen cannot remain; when there is free space the pathogen will stay, and cause problems.
Another key function of a balanced gut flora is what has been termed the `barrier effect`. The friendly bacteria help form a lining in the colon, that we call the gut mucosa or the epithelium. This protects the rest of the body from the pathogens in the intestinal tract. When the epithelium is weakened the intestine loses its impermeability and can be breached, releasing harmful bacteria, minerals and other pathogens into the body where they can wreak havoc in the blood stream. This is often referred to as `leaky gut syndrome` and is the root of many problems and diseases that begin in the colon. We must protect our body from these harmful bacteria, by encouraging the growth of the good bacteria.
There are up to 100 trillion bacteria in and on our bodies, most of which reside in the colon, 10 times more than there are human cells! We offer them shelter and cover and in turn, they keep us healthy; we rely on this symbiosis for our lives and good health. This is where prebiotics can prove essential.
The Role of Prebiotics
The Food Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines prebiotics as :
"a non-viable food component that confers a health benefit on the host associated with modulation of the microbacteria."
By definition, prebiotics are healthy and benefcial!
Unlike probiotics which are live microbacteria digested to try to add more positive bacteria in the gut flora, prebiotics can be far more beneficial by traveling directly to the colon to feed and stimulate benefical bacteria, particularly bifidobacteria. This is a more direct route than that of supplementary probiotics as often they never reach the colon to colonize the gut microbial.
The soluble fibre Inulin has become the most recognized and useful of the prebiotics. Learn more about the benefits of inulin here.
Tuohy, K, (2007). FAO Technical Meeting on Prebiotics. In Fao Technical Meeting on Prebiotics. Rome, Italy, September 16, 2007. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 6, 7.
Warnet, J, 2011. Les secrets de l'intestin: filtre de notre corps. 1st ed. Quebec: Albin Michel.
Wikipedia. 2012. Colon (Anatomy). [Online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/colon. [Accessed 04 January 2012].
Wikipedia. 2011. Prebiotics. [Online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prebiotics. [Accessed 18 December 2011].