They may seem to have very different jobs, but your gut and immune system are important partners. In fact, 70 to 80 percent of the immune system’s response is found in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
The intestinal microbiota is comprised of many microorganisms, good and bad, naturally found in the GI tract, most of which are bacteria. Together, these bacteria form an ecosystem that plays a major role in maintaining our health.
“We ask a lot of our GI tract. We ask that it be open for business and absorb food, but also that it be closed to anything we don’t like,” says Dr. David Armstrong, a gastroenterologist at Hamilton Health Sciences in Hamilton, Ontario, and a member of the Alliance for Education on Probiotics’ Scientific Advisory Council. “If you alter what’s going on in your gut, you alter the mixture of organisms in there, and that may alter your propensity for disease or for symptoms. A healthy GI tract is key to fighting off infections.”
Understanding the balance in your gut
When the intestinal microbiota is disrupted by your diet, stress, antibiotic use, or lifestyle, the bad bacteria can take control and cause digestive issues, including diarrhea, constipation, cramping, bloating, gas, nausea, and vomiting. It can also impact your immune system, leading to fatigue, illness, and infections.
Infections, such as the common cold or flu, can leave us weak and susceptible to other illnesses. During their seasonal peak, it’s important to strengthen and maintain your GI tract to help build your defence against infection.
If you alter what’s going on in your gut, you alter the mixture of organisms in there, and that may alter your propensity for disease or for symptoms. A healthy GI tract is key to fighting off infections.Dr. David Armstrong, Gastroenterologist
More evidence of how significantly the intestinal microbiota affects your body lies in the treatment of bacterial infections with antibiotics. “When they kill harmful bacteria, antibiotics may also destroy some of the beneficial bacteria, leaving an excess of the organisms that trigger diarrhea,” says Dr. Armstrong. This can cause antibiotic-associated diarrhea (AAD).
A subset of AAD is C. difficile-associated diarrhea (CDAD), which occurs when there aren’t enough beneficial bacteria to regulate C. difficile bacteria, allowing them to grow out of control. This can lead to severe diarrhea, which can be life-threatening and require hospitalization.
Making an educated choice
To reduce the risk of conditions like AAD and CDAD, balance your GI tract, and support your immune system, probiotics can help restore the balance of the intestinal microbiota. But Dr. Armstrong warns that not all probiotics are equally effective.
Selecting specific strains of probiotics to relieve specific symptoms is critical. The American Gastroenterological Association recently recommended the use of Bio-K+ for the primary prevention of CDAD among antibiotic users based on the high quality of associated safety and efficacy data. Bio-K+ is the only probiotic with Health Canada indications to help reduce the risk of AAD and CDAD. The Clinical Guide to Probiotic Products summarizes the scientific evidence for proven probiotics, helping Canadians navigate this decision.
Dr. Armstrong recommends talking to your pharmacist or health care provider about your options. Do your research into the quality and effectiveness of the probiotic strains in a product, whether they work well together, how well the probiotic bacteria survives in the stomach, and whether there have been clinical studies on the finished product. “It’s important to be educated before purchasing a probiotic,” Dr. Armstrong says. “Do your research so you can ensure that you gain the benefits.”