The Good Guys – How Beneficial Bacteria Affects Digestion

by Alyssa Simpson, RD, CDE, CLT

The “microbiome” is a term used to describe the dynamic community of microorganisms living in our gastrointestinal tract. This community is comprised of beneficial and symbiotic organisms that cohabitate within us.

You may be asking, how many of these little buggers are inside of us? What roles do they play with our digestive and overall health?

Right now there are around 1,000 different types of bacteria living in your digestive system. While your first thought might be “Get them out!” these organisms have many positive influences on your health.

These good guys function in symbiosis with your immune system and play an integral role protecting you from potential illnesses including parasitic infection and overgrowth of yeast and bacteria; like candida albicans and H-pylori respectively.

Beyond its protective role, these bacteria have many other beneficial functions. Chief among them is aiding in digestion. Balancing pH in the gut, reducing inflammation, regulating our bowel movements, manufacturing B vitamins and essential fatty acids, aiding in mineral absorption and protecting against toxic substances are all influenced by these good guys.

When our good guys become compromised, allowing disease-causing bacteria, parasites and yeast to proliferate, it can lead to a multitude of unpleasant and uncomfortable symptoms including gas, bloating and diarrhea. This imbalance is referred to as dysbiosis.

The delicate balance of good and bad microorganisms in your gut can be easily disrupted by many factors. These include chemical exposure, stress, poor diet, alcohol intake, antibiotic use and medications such as antacids and proton pump inhibitors.

Recently, I’ve been working with a patient who was experiencing persistent abdominal pain, distention, bloating, gas and indigestion. With the pressure and pain in her belly barely allowing her to eat, she knew she had to see a doctor.

Initially she had a colonoscopy and upper endoscopy, but no causes for her symptoms were found. The medication she was prescribed did not offer much relief either and she knew the way she was feeling was not normal for her.

Working with this patient, I first identified foods that were triggering her symptoms. Once we eliminated these foods from her diet, we were able to begin to restore her good bacteria using probiotic supplements and nutrition therapy; including foods rich in prebiotics like onions, garlic, and honey.

Within two weeks of beginning treatment her symptoms had dramatically decreased and her condition continues to improve.

Once treatment for dysbiosis begins, patients usually experience relief from symptoms in the first few weeks. This is because the treatments are patient-specific and tailored to each individual’s needs.

As in this case, treatment usually includes taking probiotics and prebiotics in coordination with medical nutrition therapy to boost development of good bacteria and inhibit growth of bad bacteria.

When selecting a probiotic supplement it is important to look for products containing living, viable organisms, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacteria bifidum for example, in addition to any condition-specific strain recommended by your healthcare provider.

As a Registered Dietitian, I can determine which probiotics and prebiotics would be most beneficial for you, help you to plan a therapeutic diet and identify lifestyle changes designed to re-balance your system and help you find relief from your symptoms.

If you suffer from a gastrointestinal condition or chronic GI symptoms, your microbiome is likely an important factor to address.