Did you know that an infant cannot digest about 30% of the nutrients in mother’s milk? Wasted calories, we scientists thought. But in nature, nothing goes to waste; there is a reason for everything. Recent studies have shown that mothers produce this nutrition not for the infant, but the bacteria and other microorganisms that live in the infant’s gut. This is the first fertilizer that the infant’s gut bacteria get- its first prebiotic shot!
In my earlier articles, I have explained how the gut (more correctly, the microorganisms in the gut), control most functions in animals, not just humans. They control the brain, the lungs and probably many other organs systems that we have not yet discovered. Here, I am hoping to shed some light on the best ways to feed and nurture our gut microbes and why it is important to do so.
More than a hundred years ago, a Bulgarian scientist by the name of Metchinkof noticed that those that ate fermented products such as pickles and yogurts, tend to live longer, had greater protection from diseases (remember, this is before antibiotics were discovered), and if infected, would recover faster! How apt is his observation in today’s day when we are ravaged by COVID19?
Let’s revisit what happens when we eat something. Part of what we eat goes to our human cells and is used for our growth and repair. The other part is used by the gut microbes. One must wonder why “waste” this food on them, and why eat it to begin with. The reason is that these gut microbes do way too many things for us, human beings. To start with, if their numbers are high, then other “bad” microbes (pathogens) that accidentally find their way into our bodies cannot grow. They are simply crowded out by these “good guys”.
Another benefit they provide is by metabolizing food into compounds that we as humans cannot produce. A primary example of this is vitamin B12. There are other similar compounds of course, but we needn’t worry about them.
A third but extremely important function they do is be the gatekeepers of what comes in contact with our gut cells so that it can be properly absorbed. This helps keep the gut lining intact and does not lead to what is now known as the “leaky gut” phenomenon. Leaky guts are the primary cause of tiny pockets of inflammation (more on this topic in another article).
Finally, these microbes produce – neurotransmitters and immunomodulators – just fancy words for chemicals that control some of our nervous system, our brain functions and our immune system.
If these little guys can do so much for us, shouldn’t we feed them right? These foods are what we call prebiotics. Simply put, prebiotics are the food that gut bacteria thrive on. Feed them right, and they will help us fight infections like COVID19.
And what about probiotics? These are the actual gut bacteria taken in capsule, liquid or even spray form. How do we know that these microbes are the “right” ones?
For that, let me backup a bit. When I went to medical school, studying advanced microbiology, I had an old Russian professor that made us do an experiment that, at the time, I thought was weird. He told each of us to go to specific areas, find the type of microbe to expect there, and to try and grow it. I remember, I was assigned to a small pond outside another campus. To find the bacteria in the water was not an issue at all. The problem was in growing the bacteria. No matter how hard we tried, we could see them under the microscope, but we could not grow them! The lesson we learnt from it was that, in a similar manner there are billions of bacteria all around us and inside us that we cannot grow, but only observe.
That was in the ‘80s; science has come a long way since then. Instead of trying to grow these bacteria, we can now sample our gut, and look for genetic sequences to identify what bacteria they belong to. It is like having a wet dog in a dark room with you. From the smell, you know, there is a wet dog in there somewhere, but you can’t catch it! Similarly, we can now “smell” these bacteria out, even if we cannot catch all of them.
Notice I said, we can’t catch all of them? So therefore, it is reasonable to assume that we have some beneficial bacteria that we have grown that are certainly found in our gut. These have already been put into capsules, gels and liquids to be taken as a probiotic supplement to add to what we already have. Think of this process as adding new friends into our gut.
The question is, if we already have these in our gut, why are we adding them? The answer lies in antibiotics. Antibiotics are like little bombs going off in our system! Contrary to popular belief, they wipe out not just the pathogens, but all other bacteria that are very similar. Some studies have shown that after a single dose – not just a set of tablets – after a single tablet, the time taken for our gut to completely come back to the original state is – are you ready? One full year! Think about the damage that this causes! The best way to avoid this is not to take antibiotics for trivial things such as a viral infection; for antibiotics work only on bacteria, and secondly, if the bacterial infection is mild, we should allow our body’s defence mechanism to do the job so that it learns. If we just cannot avoid antibiotics, then we always recommend probiotic supplementation with the good bacteria we have been able to grow in the lab.
How about the ones we cannot grow? The answer lies in the prebiotics. Think of the vegetables and fruits we eat as prebiotics – fertilizer for the microbes. Most times, we’d recommend adding fertilizer to these in the form of vegetables and fruits- mostly anything with a high amount of fiber and a compound called oligosaccharide. In actual practice, what that means is that we should eat foods containing high amounts of these compounds.
Fortunately for us, there are some scientists, unlike me, that are still working in labs. Enter Professor Gibson and Professor Rastall, both of Reading University, UK. They have painstakingly ranked fruits and vegetables (for meat, dairy and fish do not carry the compounds that these microbes need) that have the highest compound that the gut microbes love. Their results show that garlic, onion, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, citrus fruits, watermelon and all types of berries will probably be superfoods for the gut microbes.
Right from birth, we learn that our mothers are always right! Eat those prebiotics and take probiotic supplements as needed and you have your secret weapon to fight any infection, including COVID19.
- By Ajoy Prabhu Co-Founder & CTO, Circee Health Pvt. Ltd. DCA, MS (Pathology), MBA