FeaturesAug/Sep 2013 Issue

Love Your Gut

The startling role of intestinal flora in food allergy and celiac disease.

Woman holding hands in heart shape

© iStockphoto/Thinkstock; Lactobacilli © Monika Wisniewska/iStockphoto

We’ve all become familiar with the promise of probiotics, thanks to Jamie Lee Curtis and Activia yogurt. Probiotics are now added to baby food, pizza crust, cookies and even chocolate bars. They’re also widely available as supplements. According to SPINS, a natural foods market research group, sales of probiotic foods and supplements shot up 79 percent from 2010 to 2012 (from $1.25 billion to $2.25 billion).

The ever-expanding list of health problems that may be alleviated by probiotics has undoubtedly driven sales. Probiotics have been said to reduce cholesterol, shorten the duration of colds, ease eczema, treat vaginal infections and even fight gingivitis and other dental health problems.

Often referred to as “good” or “helpful” bacteria, probiotics are the same as (or similar to) the beneficial bacteria that’s already found naturally in the human body. As much as we might not like to admit it, we’re made up of both human and microbial cells—mostly bacteria but also yeasts and viruses. In fact, microbial cells far outnumber our roughly 10 trillion human cells that make up the human body. Collectively, the microbes that inhabit our intestines are known as the gut microbiome, or biome, for short.

“The vast majority of microbes associated with our body are not in the business of causing disease,” says Justin L. Sonnenburg, PhD, a microbiologist at Stanford University. Bacteria have been around for billions of years and humans have coevolved with them. For the most part, we live together harmoniously.

“We benefit from them and they benefit from us. Without our microbes, we’d be much less fit as a species,” he adds.

Indeed, many studies over the years have shown that “germ-free” mice (mice kept in a sterile bubble) develop abnormally, are underweight, have trouble fighting infections and die earlier.

Although microbes live throughout our bodies—including our mouths and skin—gut microbes are thought to be particularly important. Much of our immune system is centered in the gut; there are more immune cells there than anywhere else in the body.

Next: Beneficial Bacteria

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