How Does Gut Microbiota Benefit Us?
The microbiota plays a myriad of important roles in human health. First, through the intricate balance of good and bad bacteria, it modulates the immune system to be more effective in fighting potential pathogens. Second, it is important for various aspects of the digestion process including the breakdown of fiber humans are not able to digest. Third, its influence goes beyond the gut thanks to the release of various types of metabolites that work as signals in the body and modulate several physiological functions.3 The metabolic exchanges between the microbiota and the host, as well as among bacteria themselves, are essential contributors to maintaining good health. However, just like the microbiota can benefit us, it can also harm us if unbalanced. There are many internal and external factors that could contribute to this imbalance.
Gut Microbiota: A Major Player in the Function of the GI Tract
The relationship between the gut microbiota and the gastrointestinal tract has been somewhat unclear. As a result, researchers have been interested in discovering key elements influencing the structure and function of the gut.
A recent review4 addresses the vast and diverse community of microorganisms arbored in our gut and the exquisite range of metabolic capacities which work in tandem with the activity of enzymes in the liver and gut mucosa. The gut microbiota plays a significant role in human metabolism by providing enzymes that we are not able to produce. The microbiota contributes to processing polyphenols, production of essential micronutrients and important vitamins, and digestion of dietary fiber. Digestion of dietary fiber by the microbiota results in the production of important molecules called short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), the most abundant being acetate, propionate, and butyrate. These SCFAs are involved in maintaining the health of the gastrointestinal tract since they are a critical energy source for the intestinal cells and are important in maintaining the integrity of the intestinal barrier which tightly regulates what enters the body and what needs to remain “out”.5
Many people struggle with poor digestion. This can express itself in numerous ways, ranging from heartburn after eating a big meal too close to bedtime to constipation and diarrhea. One often overlooked reason for this poor digestion is disruption in the gut microbiome balance or “dysbiosis” and the potential consequent changes in SCFA production. Supplementation with SCFA has been linked to the reduction of gastrointestinal symptoms and intestinal comfort. Furthermore, SCFA are crucial signaling molecules that interact with specific receptors found in the cells of the immune system located in the gut and in other organs or tissue such as the pancreas, the liver and adipose tissue.