A happy gut means a healthy mind and body. Unlocking all the secrets held in our guts and understanding what influences them could help us combat a raft of health conditions. That’s why the gut microbiota – the trillions of bacteria that inhabit our gut and play a vital role in keeping us healthy – are one of the hottest topics in scientific research today.
The types of bacteria that make up our gut microbiota are determined largely by what we eat and drink. Fermented foods, such as yogurt, bread and kefir, may help to ensure a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut, and research is investigating whether such foods can promote good health and prevent disease.
In this review, the authors look at the role of fermented foods and drinks on the gut microbiota and consider future directions and collaborations for research.
The gut microbiota and good health
Our guts control and deal with every aspect of our health, say the authors. How we digest our food is linked with our mood, behaviour, energy, weight, hormone balance, immunity, and overall wellness.
Closely linked to the workings of our gut is the gut microbiota, the community of bacteria found throughout our digestive system but especially in the bowel. A diverse and healthy gut microbiota plays fundamental role in maintaining our health and wellbeing, say the authors.
The composition of the microbiota differs from one person to another, but most people have several types of bacteria in common. The healthy bacteria produce enzymes that help to digest food, they make vitamins and they help to maintain overall gut health. A large part of the body’s immune system is found in the tonsils and gut, so gut health is closely linked to the health of the immune system.
Evidence suggests that disturbance of the healthy gut microbiota may be involved in inflammatory diseases, which are linked to obesity, depression and other mental health issues. Changes in the microbiota may also be associated with diabetes and heart disease.
‘…one cannot be considered to be in good health without a well-balanced microbiota composition in the gut, our “forgotten organ”….’ – Bell et al, 2018.
The difference between fermented foods and probiotics
Fermented foods and drinks have become increasingly popular as people learn more of their possible health benefits.
Fermentation helps to preserve foods, may improve taste and texture and, by ‘pre-digesting’ food components, makes foods easier to digest and absorb.
Fermented foods are made using microbes, but not all fermented food products contain live microbes because they may be inactivated or removed during processing.
Some people mistakenly think that fermented foods and probiotics are the same thing. Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host. Fermented foods are not necessarily probiotics, although they may contain them. If so, they’re useful because they help provide a spectrum of bacteria, such as probiotics, that may provide health benefits through encouraging a vigorous microbiota community.
Do fermented foods promote good health?
When fermented foods contain probiotics, they may provide extra nutritional and health benefits. In fact, the health benefits of fermented foods seem to come from the probiotics they may contain.
‘The limitations and inconsistencies in the current body of evidence mean that, presently, no definitive conclusions can be drawn on the potential health benefits of fermented products.’ – Bell et al, 2018.
What do we know about probiotics?
Research on the potential health benefits of probiotics is still emerging but so far it is mostly being carried out by the food industry. We need independent scientific evidence to support the use of probiotics for specific health conditions, say the authors. Probiotics help to re-balance the microbiota by introducing beneficial microbes and destroying harmful ones.
Studies suggest that probiotics may help with diarrhoea and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. It is likely that the effects of probiotics may vary in different people, say the authors.