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How to take care of our flora or microbiota

J Flora is that essential living company from birth, which is housed in the intestine, an organ so important that some call it “the second brain”. Terms such as microbiota or intestinal flora will sound familiar to you , or you have even had to take probiotics for some reason. That is why in this article we will explain what the role of this intestinal flora is , what factors alter it, how it is related to our state of health and how to take care of our microbiota.

What is the microbiota?

The term microbiota refers to the community of microorganisms gathered in a given place . The surface of the skin and mucous membranes such as the nose, mouth or intestinal tract are densely populated with microorganisms. In fact the colon, which is the last part of the intestine and digestive tract, is the most densely populated.

In the small intestine there are a very small number of bacteria since the acid secretions of the stomach, and the pancreatic and bile secretions destroy most of the ingested microorganisms. And also the intestinal movements are more energetic, which prevents the implantation of microorganisms.

In the colon, the bacterial population is greater because intestinal transit is slower, there are adequate viscosity and temperature conditions, and above all, there are no mechanisms that suppress bacterial growth.

What is known and what is not (yet) known about the flora or microbiota

The microbiota includes about 100 billion bacteria of about 3000-5000 different species, most of them belong to 3 classes: Firmicutes, Bacteroidetes and Actinobacteria. Many of these bacteria are pathogenic such as E.coli or enterococci, but they are separated from the intestinal wall by a static and solid mucous layer that protects it.

It all starts in childbirth

The vaginal and intestinal microbiome (the collection of microbes and their genes) are very similar. The baby receives part of its microbial load during the very moment of delivery , which are vaginal and fecal bacteria from the mother. Babies born by cesarean section have a different pattern of bacteria by not passing through the vaginal canal. They also have a lower bacterial diversity. The type of lactation will also determine the design of the microbiota.

During the 1st year of life, the microbiota usually reaches this balance, the result of interaction not only with the mother, but also with food and the environment. The intestinal microbiota is enriched over the years but will always retain a trace of its early profile from early childhood. 

Functions of the flora or microbiota

  • The microbiota feeds us, nourishes us:  the bacterial fermentation of the fiber we eat produces energy, a kind of “fuel” for our intestinal cells.
    In addition, this fermentation produces fatty acids that are associated with the reduction of certain types of cancer.
  • The microbiota also fulfills the function of production of vitamin K, B12, formation of amino acids or the improvement of the absorption of iron and calcium in the colon.
  • Barrier functions : prevent the invasion of infectious agents, maintaining a balance of species and avoiding overgrowth.
  • Functions on the health of the cell wall , collaborate / participate in the turnover and differentiation of the cells of the intestinal wall.
  • The microbiota collaborates in the defense against diseases because they regulate the immune system. Functions on the regulation of the immune system. 
  • The intestinal flora tries to keep itself in balance. It has the ability of the “barrier effect” that is to say that it prevents the invasion of foreign bacterial elements avoiding infectious diseases. The bacteria of our microbiota are installed in a way that prevents colonization by exogenous or pathogenic bacteria.
  • On the other hand, the cells of the intestinal wall have to perform a complex task to distinguish pathogenic bacteria, viruses and respond accordingly to avoid infection while tolerating the bacteria of the microbiota. This immunotolerance is related to the interaction between the immunocompetent actors of the intestinal mucosa and the microbiota. A loss of balance, or dysbiosis, could compromise immunity and trigger inflammatory responses.

It could be that the vermiform appendix, that organ that is not associated with a clear function in the body other than removal due to appendicitis, served as a refuge for the saprophytic bacteria of our intestine, acting as a kind of deposit of our microbiota that it would help to regain balance, for example, after an antibiotic treatment.

Flora and dysbiosis

It is known that in many diseases the microbiota changes and there is dysbiosis , but it is not known if dysbiosis occurs first and then the disease or if dysbiosis itself can contribute to maintaining the disease. In this sense, probiotic and prebiotic therapies are an emerging science and there are already classifications of bacteria and their possible therapeutic action in different pathological situations. 

There may be factors or situations that alter the balance in the bacterial population of the flora, causing what is known as “dysbiosis”. Dysbiosis has been linked to asthma, chronic inflammatory diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, diverticula, colon cancer, nonalcoholic fatty liver, or obesity.

The inflammatory response (many white blood cells in the mucosa) associated with dysbiosis can cause ulcerations, fissures, and lesions. This situation is observed in inflammatory bowel disease and also in patients with celiac disease, and in almost half of patients with acute diarrhea, diverticulosis, colon cancer, polyps and in 40% of cases of irritable bowel.

Factors that can alter the balance in the microbiota

  • Stress
  • Digestive or immune system disorders
  • Intestinal infections, for example after traveling and contracting an intestinal bacteria or parasite.
  • Intense or acute diarrheal processes 
  • Diet: the way we eat and the type of food that makes up our daily diet can play an important role in our intestinal health.
  • Emulsifiers 
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Toxic habits: tobacco, alcohol
  • Antibiotic treatment, since antibiotics destroy pathogenic bacteria but also a part of our microbiota 
  • Aging
  • Genetic predisposition and the very nature of our flora
  • Excess hygiene: there is a theory of hygiene that assumes that excessive cleaning and the decrease in exposure to bacteria at an early age prevents the correct development of immunoregulatory mechanisms. 

Symptoms of imbalance in the microbiota (dysbiosis)

As we have just mentioned, there may be factors that make our bacterial flora not in top shape, causing gastrointestinal disorders. In that case, what do we notice? 

  • diarrhea
  • abdominal distention: swollen abdomen
  • constipation
  • heavy digestions
  • gases
  • pain
  • bowel noise

And in inflammatory bowel disease where an inflammatory response occurs and an inability to suppress it, causing damage to the tissue, the symptoms can be: diarrhea, food intolerances or weight loss among other symptoms.

Alterations in the composition of the intestinal microbiota also affect the central nervous system, since the intestine and the brain are connected through a myriad of communication pathways. This may explain that some mental and neurodevelopmental disorders, such as depression, anxiety and autism, may be related to dysbiosis of the gut microbiota. The characteristics of the diet together with the genetic factors influence the prevalence of one or other types of microorganisms.

Bacteria in the large intestine feed on compounds that have not been absorbed in the small intestine, that is, dietary fiber. 10,000 ago the fiber intake would be between 100 and 200g, today we consume 20g / day on average and we do not reach the recommendation of 25-30g / day. The microbiota of our ancestors had to be much more varied and different than ours. Today we would not tolerate a fiber intake above 50g per day.

How to take care of the intestinal flora or microbiota

What should we include in the diet to take care of the intestinal flora?

Prioritize plant-based foods. Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day. They provide polyphenols with antioxidant function and that serve to improve the composition of the microbiota and intestinal function.

Follow a diet rich in soluble fiber as it promotes the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria due to its prebiotic effect. It is found naturally in foods such as garlic, onion, leek, asparagus, artichokes, tomatoes, bananas, plums, or apples; in cereals such as bran and in nuts such as almonds. Or whole grain products like pasta, rice or bread.

Consumption of probiotics

Probiotics are live bacteria that survive digestion and reach the colon to positively influence our intestinal flora. We will explain everything to you in the following video

What should we moderate to take care of the flora?

Reduce the consumption of saturated fats and simple sugars: sweets, pastries, sugary drinks, red meat, cold cuts, ultra-processed foods, which are rich in additives, emulsifiers and low in fiber. In addition, they promote a less varied and less healthy microbiota with a predominance of more putrefactive bacteria.

What to do in case of dysbiosis or flora imbalance?

If you suffer from these symptoms and suspect dysbiosis, we recommend you see your doctor for an assessment and the necessary tests to have a diagnosis. Based on the diagnosis, you can go to the nutritionist to receive personalized nutritional advice adapted to your needs. J

Dietary treatment in digestive diseases can help reduce symptoms of pain, flatulence or diarrhea . The presentation of food intolerances can be treated in nutrition consultations in order to reduce diarrhea and improve the nutrition of patients. 

If the intolerance is to sugars , the diet is aimed at avoiding these sugars: malabsorption of lactose, fructose or sorbitol. In irritable colon the approach would be to avoid fermentable carbohydrates with the FODMAP diet or with probiotics. Other manifestations such as constipation can be addressed by ensuring adequate dietary habits in hydration, soluble fiber or even with the support of probiotics designed for each situation. Avoid toxic habits, stress and seek adequate rest and exercise, would be other habits to work on.

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