Food & Diet

  • Natural VS Normal Peanut Butter

     

    What is the difference between peanut butter and "natural" peanut butter? Is one better for you? Should you be choosing one over the other?! We have answers!

    http://youtu.be/MY6DOwzqhko

    We've seen a trend over the last few years to move away from processed food and towards natural foods. These include the simple "natural" part of what we typically feel are whole foods. Natural peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter, macadamia nut butter and many others are flying off the health and organic food shelves. Why not? We all want to be healthy!

    Since I get a lot of questions about the difference and benefits of natural peanut butter- one of the most loved of all the spreads- I decided to do a closer examination and share the results with you!

    Ingredients

    Natural peanut butter ingredients:

    - Roasted peanuts

    Normal peanut butter ingredients:

    - Peanuts

    - Soybean oil

    - Corn maltodextrin

    - Sugar

    - Hydrogenated vegetable oil

    - Salt

    - Mono- and di-glycerides

    Notes to make here… Please be aware of the difference between "Natural" and "Organic". Organic refers to the growth practices of the ingredients. The term natural can refer to anything the company wants. It gives us a warm and fuzzy feeling, and makes us feel good about buying it. As though, by being "natural" it is automatically "good". This is not the case… arsenic, for example, is a natural product… that certainly does not make it "good" for us!

    Nutrient profile

    Total Calories:

    Natural PB = 100

    Normal PB = 90

    Total Carb (fiber + sugar)

    Natural PB = 2.5 g/ tbsp

    Normal PB = 2 g / tbsp

    Fats (saturated)

    Natural PB = 0.8g / tbsp

    Normal PB = 1 g / tbsp

    Protein

    Natural PB = 4 g /tbsp

    Normal PB = 3.5g / tbsp

    Sodium

    Natural PB = 0

    Normal PB = 60mg / tbsp

     

    Taste / flavour

    Natural peanut butter, in my opinion, is richer in flavour than the generic brand. It is processed less and contains fewer supplementary ingredients such as sugar, which mask the taste! You might notice that you need less of it to get your usual peanut butter fix!

     

    Overall, there wasn't much difference between the natural and normal peanut butter labels. However, we do know that a high sugar diet is dangerous. The health benefit of changing to a whole food or more natural food is not always easily expressed on the nutrition label. For example, corn maltodextrin is listed 3rd on the label and it is a dangerous form of sugar.

    We recommend that you try to avoid unhealthy additives whenever possible!

     

     

     

  • How does your trainer eat?

    Well, let's be real, your personal trainer is probably pretty healthy! Trainers get asked regularly what sort of diet they follow. The assumption is that if it works for the trainer, it'll probably work for themselves as well!

    http://youtu.be/5fkhgUrIjTQ

    I decided to share a few secrets with you about myself and the big man himself, Jay. The truth is that we are just human! We have cravings, cheat meals and love chocolate, same as everyone else! Overall, however, as trainers and coaches, we are active people. With a passion for fitness and treating our bodies the way they deserve. As such, we treat our bodies well.

    If you want the body of your trainer, you should keep these in mind:

     

    - We don't eat junk as meals

    Oh sure, we cheat every now and again. But that does not have the same meaning as making a McDonald's Combo a meal! A little treat once a week is nothing but good for the mind and body. Enjoy life!

     

    - We don't drink excessively

    Alcohol has a very similar effect on the body as sugar. Too much alcohol will inevitably cause weight gain and puts a lot of stress on the organs. It is a depressant as well, suppressing the entire system and possibly taking away from training and performance. While we know how to have a good time, binge drinking is strongly avoided.

     

    - We eat a LOT of vegetables

    With groceries every 3 days, at the least, the fridge is always stocked with fresh greens! Don't forget your sweet peppers, and superfoods like kale. Personally, raw veggies are the preferred method, making salads which last 2 or 3 meals at a time.

     

    - We eat moderate fruits

    Fruits contain sugar. Many also contain electrolytes, which are much needed in the heat of the summer. 1 to 3 fruits per day, depending on the need helps to provide energy, recovery food and keep the system fueled and running well!

     

    - We eat lean proteins, usually…

    The meat of choice is lean meat, usually chicken and turkey. No cold cut, since they contain lots of sodium and nitrates. The second protein of choice is fish and seafood. These contain great proteins and really healthy fats (yes, we need fats for good health!), even in small 4oz portions. Finally, on occasion, we go for grass fed, free range beef, lamb, goat, deer or bison if you have the opportunity!

     

    - We avoid sugar like it's the devil

    Refined sugar is addictive and has an effect on the body compared to cocaine by health experts. Any athlete, bodybuilder or health fanatic will avoid refined sugar in foods, desserts and beverages as often as humanly possible!

     

    - We avoid simple carbs whenever possible

     

    Sides like white rice, bread, fries, and other unnecessary foods are not even considered options. Brown rice and steel cut oats and fruits take that spot!

     

    - In some cases, we are genetically pre-disposed to our body type!

    Leaner or more muscular body types set a person up for success. Thank our moms and dads! That is not to say that all the subsequent work was not important; indeed, trainers continue to work hard to improve their bodies!

    - We LOVE training and working out anywhere; yes, even on vacation

    Not a word of a lie: when I travel, I always check out the gyms in the area first!

     

     

    If you'd like to end up like your coaches, try taking on several of these habits!

     

    Feresh

    FD Bulsara, BSc, NCCP level 1 weightlifting

    Amino Z Personal Trainer

  • Water fad

    Functional drinks are the new fad, do they really live up to the hype? In this article we examined the science behind some of the claims made by the manufacturers of 3 popular types of drinks: the oxygenated water, vitamin water and coconut water.

    Oxygenated water

    Let's start with oxygenated water, in some places it's called hyper or super oxygenated water, as all water is more of less oxygenated. One may ask: can oxygen supplementation improve exercise performance? Yes. It was observed that the BREATHING oxygen DURING exercise could enhance athletic performance (Wagner 1996, Annual Review of Physiology). But the timing of the oxygen supplementation is important, breathing 100% oxygen before or after exercise or during exercise intervals does not aid recovery or enhance performance (Robbins et al. 1992, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise). This means that, assuming drinking oxygen is the same as breathing oxygen, you will have be drink the water while exercising. How much oxygen do hyperoxygenated water contain? Well, certainly not 100%

    The solubility of oxygen in liquid is very low, it is related to temperature and the pressure at the air-liquid interface (the surface of the water). The oxygen content of bottled water can thus be increased by increasing the pressure inside the bottle. However, once the pressure drops, i.e. the opening of the bottle, the water will start to de-gas quite rapidly, much like carbonated soft drinks. The oxygen content inside the water will consequently fall to normal levels, similar to that of found in tap water. One has to open the bottle to drink the water, therefore even if the oxygen content of the water inside the bottle is significantly higher than in normal water, its oxygen concentration will be greatly reduced by the time it reaches your stomach. One study measured the oxygen concentration in 5 different brands of hyperoxygenated water in SEALED bottles and compared that with the oxygen concentration of normal tap water. It was found that 4 out of the 5 brands did indeed have a higher oxygen concentration as compared to normal tap water (3-9 times higher depends on bands), however one was the same as tap water (Hampson et al. 2003, JAMA). There seemed to be quite a bit of inconsistency in quality between different brands. The highest oxygen concentration in the hyperoxygenated water tested as determined in the Hampson study was only 8%, which is much lower than the 21% oxygen content of the air. This means each litre of hyperoxygenated water contains around 80mL of air, whereas a normal human can inhale roughly 100mL of oxygen with each breath. No wonder Piantadosi proclaimed in the British Journal of Sports Medicine: "A breath of fresh air contains more O2 than a litre of hyperoxygenated water".

    One may argue that the extra oxygen in water can be absorbed directly into the body hence have health benefits. That is not true, in fact, there is no conclusive evidence suggesting that oxygen in water could be absorbed by the body. Even if the oxygen did somehow enter the blood stream via the intestines, it would probably enter the veins rather than an artery, which will then be on its way to get re-oxygenated by the lung. It was postulated that for ingested oxygen to have any potential effect on a normal person's systemic oxygen delivery, one would need to provide 250mL of rapidly absorbable oxygen per minute (Piantadosi 2006, British Journal of Sports Medicine). To be able to achieve that, you will have to drink over 3 litres of hyperoxygenated water that contains 9 times higher concentration of oxygen than tap water per minute, and hoping that all oxygen in the water will get absorbed into the blood streams. That's going to be a lot of money spent on water, per minute ;-)

    Now, all theories aside, can oxygenated water improve your exercise performance and recovery in a practical setting? The answer is no. There's currently no scientific evidence supporting the notion that consuming hyperoxygenated water can improve exercise performance or aid recovery (McNaughton et al 2007, International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance; Wing-Gaia et al. 2005, International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism; Leibetseder et al. 2006, International Journal of Sports Medicine). It's suggested that the amount of oxygen contained in the water is too low to have any impact on the plasma oxygen levels as hemoglobin (the iron-containing oxygen transport protein in red blood cells) is usually saturated (or close to being saturated) with oxygen during breathing (Jenkins et al. 2002, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise). On top of that, the oxygen in the water is likely to be consumed by the cells in the gut before they had any chance of reaching the blood or muscles (Willmert at al. 2002, Journal of Exercise Physiology).

    So, what can hyperoxygenated water do? It's good for hydration, just like normal water. Drinking hyperoxygenated water does not have any adverse effects on liver, blood and immune system (Gruber et al. 2005, Clinical Nutrition). Interestingly, studies found that the consumption of hyperoxygenated water could cause a temporary raise in oxygen radicals in the body (Schoenberg et al. 2002, European Journal of Medical Research; Gruber et al. 2005, Clinical Nutrition). This slight raise in oxygen radicals only lasted a short period and only happened to people who don't consume hyperoxygenated water regularly. No potential health implications were mentioned in any of these studies. Hyperoxygenated water is safe for human consumption.

    Vitamin water

    I have to say I liked the idea of vitamin water, it's a neat concept. However, after picking up a few bottles of different flavored vitamin water from the supermarket, and carefully examined their nutritional contents, I started having doubts about whether this is a good idea after all. Here are my reasons:

    • Regardless the formulation, vitamin water generally contains a limited number of key vitamins and minerals, and a lot of sugar. Each 500mL bottle contains around 30 grams of sugar, this almost equal to the amount of sugar found in a can of regular coke. If you opt for the sugar-free version, please refer to the aspartame article in the previous edition of this magazine before proceeding further. One may argue that vitamin water is a form of sports drink, and sugar can help with exercise performance (please refer to Are sports drinks beneficial during workouts in the Oct/Nov 2012 edition of the magazine). Of course, having carbs (in the form of sugars) is somewhat important, however, in order for the drink to function as a sports drink, one should also contain a good amount of electrolytes, such as potassium, which is noticeably absent in some of the formulations. Make sure to pick a formulation that contains a good dose of potassium if you wish to use it as a sports drink.
    • One other concern I have is the quality and the stability of vitamins in the drinks. There are 2 types of vitamins, water-soluble vitamins, including vitamin B and vitamin C; and fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamin A, D, E and K. Both types of vitamins tend degrade after dissolved in liquid, albeit at different rates. One study investigated the stability of water- and fat-soluble vitamins in vitamin enriched liquid serum and found that after one year of storage at -20 degrees C, up to 30% of the water-soluble vitamins were degraded whereas over 50% of the fat-soluble vitamins were degraded (Ihara et al. 2004, Journal of Clinical Laboratory Analysis). There is no guaranty of the conditions where the vitamin water was stored and transport before they reached the shelves and thus no real assurance of the quality and stability of the vitamins. Indeed, currently available studies investigating the efficacy of the vitamins in vitamin waters only studied the water-soluble vitamins. One study investigated the absorption of vitamin C and B in a commercially available vitamin water and compared to that of the vitamins contained in mixed meals, and found the blood vitamin levels to be identical after consumption (Kalman et al. 2009, International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition). Another study used self-made vitamin C and iron-fortified water and found that it can improve people's nutritional status after 5 months of consumption (Rhoca Dda et al. 2011, Food and Nutrition Bulletin).

    Overall, I think the vitamin water currently available on the market is not that dissimilar to the common soft drinks, minus the fizziness. If you want nice tasting water that has a good range of nutrients and antioxidants without all the artificial additives, try fresh juice.

    Coconut water

    Coconut water, or more scientifically but less appealingly, coconut liquid endosperm has been dubbed by some as one of the worlds most versatile natural products. When I say coconut water here as a drink, I mean the clear, natural, unprocessed, unsweetened liquid taken directly from a fresh coconut, not to be confused with the white coconut milk commonly used in cooking in some of the South East Asian countries. Natural coconut water contains a huge variety of vitamins, amino acids, minerals, fibers, with little fat (less than 0.2%), protein (less than 0.75%) and relative low amount (less than 5%) of sugars (contains a mixture of glucose, sucrose and fructose). The energy content of coconut water is around 79kj per 100g. The sodium content of coconut water varies depending on the growth environment and the age of the coconuts, it can range from 1.75mg/100g of water (results from 1 study) to 105mg/100g of water (results from 3 studies). Many of the nutrients are only found in low levels in coconut water, however, it contains a large amount of potassium, at over 200mg per 100g of water (Yong at al. 2009, Molecules). There is more potassium in 100g of coconut water than that of in a common 600mL (roughly 600g) sports drink. It has been suggested by some that certain contents in coconut water, when used as a pure agent in high doses may have anti-aging, anti-cancer properties in fruit flies or mammalian cell lines. However, I have yet to see any concrete proof to show that the consumption and/or application of coconut water have any such effects in humans.

    Coconut water has been found to be able to effectively aid rehydration after exercise induced dehydration and support physical performance in a similar fashion compared to that of a commercially available carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drinks (Kalman et al. 2012, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition). Another recent study evaluated the hypoglycemic and antioxidant effects of coconut water extracted from mature coconuts on diabetic rats. It showed that diabetic animals treated with the coconut water had lower blood glucose levels and reduced oxidative stress (Preetha et al. 2012, Food and Function). Of course, rats are very different to humans and a positive result obtained on rats does not mean it will translate into humans, in fact, in many cases it doesn't. It would be nice to to see similar studies to be conducted on human patients as here is currently no study that demonstrates drinking coconut water has any tangible benefits on human health, other than providing hydration and supply electrolytes.

    So all in all, I think coconut water is a healthier alternative to artificially flavored sports drinks, at least it's natural. However, some natural coconut water contains more sodium (salt) per 100mL than sports drinks. We already ingest more than enough salt from our diet and having too much salt can lead to a number of health complications. In addition, the trace amount of vitamins and minerals other than potassium contained in coconut water means that it's not a viable replacement for you daily meals. It's also not very cheap in Australia. However, if coconut water is your thing, make sure the sodium content is low and the drink is not artificially flavored, otherwise, it will be no better than a flavored sports drink.

    The purpose of this article is not to "debunk" the myths or glorify benefits of the chosen functional drinks. What I hope to achieve, is to help you looking at products like this in a more rational manner, and to understand that there are no shortcuts for living a healthy life.

  • The cause and cure for seasonal weight gain

    Many of us experience some degree of weight gain during the winter season. Some might argue that it is because we need to eat more during winter to keep warm (not true), some say it's because we do less outdoor activities in the cold. Myth or truth, this article explored the scientific findings behind the possible cause of seasonal weight gain and the ways to compact it. The information contained in this article is also relevant to people who have mood slumps or carb cravings due to a change of environment or weather. If you fall into any of the above categories, tune in.

    First thing first, yes, in general, some people are indeed more susceptible to weight gain during winter seasons. The cause of seasonal weight gain is mostly due to environmental factors, however, a possible genetic component has also been postulated. We do tend to eat more in winter, and especially crave for carbohydrate-rich foods, not because they can keep us warm, but they somehow can make us feel better. Does this sound like you? Here is why…

    SAD and Co.

    Yes, that's right, winter makes some of us SAD, acronym for Seasonal Affected Disorder, also known as seasonal depression. SAD is said to be "a combination of biologic and mood disturbances with a seasonal pattern", which usually occur in the autumn and winter and ends in spring and summer (Kurlansik and Ibay 2012, American Family Physician). The cause of SAD is largely due to the changes in lengths of days/nights and drop in temperatures in winter compared to summer. It's said that up to 10% of the population in the US has SAD, with a higher incidence in women than men (Miller 2005, Alternative Medicine Review). People with SAD can experience changes in mood, energy and appetite, which can result in depression, fatigue, carbohydrate consumption especially with cravings for sweats and starch-rich food and consequently result in weight gain. A study that analysed the eating habits of female SAD sufferers found that SAD patients are prone to emotional eating, thus leads to a higher chance of seasonal weight gain and a higher BMI compared to non-SAD sufferers (Krauchi 1997, Comprehensive Psychiatry).

    There are a number of possible explanations for the cause of SAD, including genetic predispositions, neurotransmitter abnormalities, both sound quite serious and a bit of gibberish to most people. However, neither really explains the seasonal rhythm of SAD. I'd go and seek professional medical help if your SAD is that serious. On a more relevant note, one of the most obvious differences between summer and winter seasons, other than the change in temperature, is the shortened daylight period, which will consequently affect a person's circadian rhythm (biological clock) (to learn about the circadian rhythm and BMI please read the Dec 2012 issue of Fit Lifestyle magazine). You don't really need to have clinical SAD to experience similar symptoms, and below are what I personally think is relevant to an average Joe like you and me that suffers seasonal mood and weight changes.

    The slight change in circadian rhythm will alter the production of melatonin, an endocrine hormone and a powerful antioxidant produced by the pineal gland into the blood. As the production of melatonin is kick-started by darkness and inhibited by light, it can be affected by the shortened daylight of winter. It was found that there is a delay in melatonin secretion in response to darkness in clinical SAD sufferers, and there is a difference in melatonin secretion pattern/levels in SAD patients as compared to normal people (Miller 2005, Alternative Medicine Review). A trial of 58 SAD patients were given high-dose of slow-release melatonin and a significant improvement in quality of sleep and vitality were observed, however melatonin therapy had no effect on mood (Leppamaki et al, 2003, European Neuropsychopharmacology). Go and see your doctor if you suspect you have melatonin issues.

    One cannot talk about mood changes without mentioning serotonin, a hormone that controls you mood, appetite and sleep. Inadequate levels of serotonin in the brain can cause carbohydrate cravings. Serotonin has also been found to be a controller of body weight by regulating the body's energy balance. Brain serotonin levels are relevant not only to SAD sufferers, but also to anyone who has mood swings associated with environmental or weather changes. For those who feel the cravings for carbs, it may be caused by inadequate serotonin levels in your brain. The best natural ways to increase serotonin levels, according to Young (2007, Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience) are:

    • Exposure to bright light. Uh-Huh! We live in a bright light-deprived society, where many people spend best part of their day indoors. The lights commonly used indoors do not have enough lux (luminous flux per unit area, a way to measure light intensity) to make you secrete enough serotonin. Whereas even the outdoor light on a cloudy day could make you happier. Get outdoors as much as possible without getting sun burnt, you could be happier and lighter in the process, kill two birds with one stone as they say.
    • Do exercise. It has been scientifically proven that the exercise can make you happy. It was hypothesized that the decline in vigorous physical exercise, in particular, effort based rewards compared to our ancestors may contribute to high levels of depression in the current society. Adequate exercise can increased serotonin levels and hence decrease carb cravings, and you can stay active and healthy in the process.
    • Diet. There is quite a bit of incorrect information floating around about this one. As serotonin is the metabolic product of tryptophan, ingestion of purified tryptophan has been found to increase brain serotonin levels. However, ingestion of food containing tryptophan does not, as the other amino acids contained in the food will compete with the tryptophan. The popular myth that is eating high protein food such as turkey can increase serotonin level, is false; similarly, the popular believe of eating bananas, which do indeed contain serotonin can improve mood, is also false, as the serotonin contained in bananas does not cross the blood-brain barrier to get into our brains to make us happy. In order for a food to increase brain serotonin levels, the tryptophan content of the food needs to be much higher than that of other amino acids, some example of those foods are specially cultivated chickpeas and alkali-processed corns.

    Vitamin D

    Some have stated that the reduced vitamin D synthesis caused by a reduction of sunlight (UV-B radiation) in winter compared to summer is one possible cause of seasonal weight gain and obesity (Foss 2009, Medical Hypothesis). This seems reasonable and indeed, low vitamin D status has been linked with an increased risk of weight gain and obesity. Vitamin D is thought to play a role in adipocyte (fat cell) death and genesis as well as lipid metabolism (Song and Sergeev 2012, Nutrition Research Reviews). However, taking vitamin D (often along with calcium) doesn't seem to make you thinner, as clinical intervention trials using vitamin D yielded controversial results. There is no concrete scientific evidence in humans to indicate supplementation of vitamin D can prevent obesity in real life situations, yet.

    Some may also argue that vitamin D deficiency is associated with depression and can lead to "emotional eating" and hence weight gain. Well, believe it or not, that is also a myth, well, more like an exaggerated truth. Yes, there is an association between low vitamin D levels and depression however, there is currently insufficient evidence to say that vitamin D deficiency is the antecedent cause or consequence of depression (Parker and Brotchie 2011, Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica). So can lower vitamin D synthesis in winter cause weight gain? Not sure about that, but in case it does, get into the sun more often and consume food or supplements that contain vitamin D will be sufficient.

    It's not me, blame the genes!

    There seems to be a gene linked to everything these days and weight gain is no exception. There is an established genetic component in weight related disorders such as obesity, where a percentage of people have the genes to allow them to gain weight more easily than others. This phenomenon has puzzled scientists as the survival of these weight gain genes in the human population defies the theory of "survival of fittest", there is nothing "fit" about been obese.

    Two main theories have been postulated in order to explain the presence of fat gaining genes, the "thrifty gene hypothesis" initially proposed by James Neel in 1962, and the "drifty gene hypothesis" first proposed by John Speakman in 2008. Scientists supporting each of the hypothesis argued with each other about the details of what kind of selection pressure required during the history of mankind to allow these genes to survive. Let's leave that part to the scientists, what is relevant, is that, scientists from both sides agreed that there is a genetic predisposition in a population of people so that some people are more prone to weight gain than others. This genetic predisposition is kept there because historically speaking, ancient humans faced famine, seasonal shortage of food and predation (or lack of), hence needed to store fat to have the energy required for survival during periods of abundance. In a developed modern society however, for instance, Australia, there is a perpetual abundance of food, and a lack of predators that feed on us humans. What was historically advantageous for survival became the culprit for causing widespread weight gain and obesity.

    So, some people are genetically prone to gain weight, big deal, because ultimately, weight management is all about calories in and calories out, the choice is yours. If you eat well and exercise adequately, there is really no reason for you to gain weight any more than other people. Think of the number of calories required per day as the speed limit, and to have the "fat gene" means you have a relatively faster car than the average shopping trollies found on roads. It's easier for you to speed if you put your foot down, but there's no excuse, watch the speedometer and exercise discretion, you are more than capable of staying within the limit. It may be is the genes, but it is definitely up to you.

    Final words

    The purpose of this article is to show the scientific understandings behind seasonal weight gain, mood slumps and emotional eating. Not to succumb to the food cravings, instead, continue to eat healthy, spend more time outdoors and do adequate exercise, are probably the most effective natural cures to deal with these kinds of problems. It is all in your hands.

  • Probiotics

    People generally regard bacteria as harmful and equate them as germs. There are countless ads on TV for bacteria removal. We are taught from a young age to wash our hands after coming home from outside, after going to the bathroom, before touching food, before touching newborn babies…for the purpose of removing bacteria. Disaster flicks such as the 2001 film "Anthrax", as well as various news reports of incidents associated with "meningococcus (meat-eating bacteria)" or "superbugs" really made us flinch at the mere mention of the word "bacteria". Amidst all this negativity and fear towards bacteria, we need to understand that not all of them are bad. While only the bad guys made it onto the news, it is the good guys that keep us healthy and well.

    In fact, we cannot live a healthy life without the help of bacteria. There are, on average, 1.1-2.7kgs of bacteria inside of a human body (exact kgs may vary depends on the sources and human subjects). Yes! That's right! Each one of us has kilos of bacteria living inside of us, they live up your nose, in your hair and in your gut, they are pretty much everywhere. Now consider the small size of a single bacterium, a kilo of them means that there are really a lot of bugs. There can be up to 100 trillion bacteria living in your intestine alone, that's almost 10 times the number of human cells present in the entire human body. That's not all, it has been suggested that there are an average of 500 different species of bacteria living in the intestines. These bacteria are what we commonly call intestinal microflora or simply "the good bacteria", which can help us regulate the function and development of the digestive system, maintain proper immune function, reduce/eliminate the number of bad bacteria that we are scared of, and produce useful nutrients and substrates that the body needs. Intestinal microflora are so important to us, they are part of us, so much so, they have been dubbed as the "forgotten organ" of the human body (O'Hara and Shanahan 2006). In this article, we will explore some facts about the good bacteria in our gut, their significance, and what can we do to make sure that they do their jobs properly.

    Intestinal Microflora

    How did the bacteria get in there and what can influence their composition?

    The gastrointestinal track of a normal fetus is thought to be sterile. Infants acquire the bacteria from their mother and the surrounding environments during and shortly after birth. It would take up to one month for the intestinal microflora to be well established in an infant after natural birth and up to 6 months if the infant was born by caesarean delivery (Gronlund et al. 1999, Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition). The composition of the intestinal microflora can be influenced by the diet and living environment of a person.

    The use of antibiotics is the biggest culprit for disrupting the natural balance of intestinal microflora. A course antibiotics will not only kill off the bad bacteria that gave you the diseases, it will also destroy good bacteria along with it. Some diseases can also disrupt the balance of the microflora. The use of probiotics can attenuate the imbalance and potentially return the intestinal microflora to normal levels.

    What are probiotics and what are their benefits?

    Probiotics are defined as non-pathogenic living microorganisms that contribute to the intestinal microbial balance when consumed in adequate amounts (Modified from Parker 1974). The most common natural probiotics are fermented foods such as yogurt, cheese and sauerkraut. In comparison, probiotic supplements are more concentrated and defined, but have a less variety of microorganisms compared to natural foods. Even though there are hundreds of species of beneficial microorganisms naturally living in the gut, years of research have helped to identify the most potent ones of the lot. Hence most probiotic supplements today contain a large number of the few bacterial species and strains. These bacteria have a high survival rate to ensure that there will be enough of them that can pass through the acidic environment of the stomach to reach the intestines after ingestion and stay alive. The most commonly used bacterial species in probiotic supplements are various strains of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria.

    What are the positive effects of probiotics?

    The positive effects of probiotics have been widely researched over the years in both animals and humans. The use of probiotics in humans is thought to have the following benefits (Toole and Cooney 2008, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Infectious Diseases):

    • Improve immune function by enhance T-cell (a type of immune cell of the adaptive immune system) numbers and activation levels.
    • Reduce inflammation by promoting the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines.
    • Reduce symptoms caused by Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
    • Reduce number of pathogens in the gut by directly inhibiting their growth.
    • Reduce the risk of certain cancers by detoxifying carcinogenic (cancer causing) metabolites.
    • Enhance the value of nutrients by producing vitamins and co-factors.
    • Improve the function of gut barrier by promoting its integrity.
    • Reduce allergy and food intolerance symptoms by suppression of hypersensitivity and catabolize dietary ingredients.
    • Reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases by de-conjugate bile salts to reduce cholesterol levels and produce anti-hypertensive peptides.

    Effects of probiotics on metabolic disorders, diabetes and obesity

    Recent studies have linked intestinal microflora imbalance to metabolic disorders, type 2 diabetes and obesity. It has been found that obese animal and human subjects have altered intestinal microflora composition in comparison to their lean counterparts (Sanz et, al. 2010, The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society). It is thought that intestinal microflora can provide additional metabolic functions and regulate the host's gene expression to improve the body's ability to extract and store energy from diet, and thus influence body weight. The supplementation of probiotics and its effect on body weight composition has been investigated. The supplementation of bifidobacterial in rats yielded reduced body weight and fat accumulation as well as their lipid profile and glucose-insulin homeostasis compared to the control rats. On the other hand, the studies conducted using human subjects are inconclusive and yielded mixed results (Shen et al. 2012, Molecular Aspects of Medicine). The duration of the studies were too short to determine the effect on body weight, and the parameters of many studies were usually not well defined (Sanz et, al. 2012, Pharmacological Research). Thus, better designed studies and further in-depth analysis are required to determine the effects of various strains of microbes on obesity and other metabolic disorders.

    Probiotics and sports

    Heavy and prolonged exercise, such as marathon running can increase the risk of upper respiratory track infections, and strenuous exercise can cause gastrointestinal symptoms (Kekkonen et al. 2007, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism). The administration of probiotics (lactobacillus) has been found to reduce the length of time an athlete experience respiratory symptoms (Cox et al. 2010, British Journal of Sports Medicine) and shorten the duration of gastrointestinal symptoms (Kekkonen et al. 2007, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism) post exercise. However, the supplementation of probiotics did not seem to improve the performance of the athletes in the above studies.

    Risks of taking probiotics

    There are always two sides of every story and the use of probiotics is no exception. The following points need to be considered before choosing and taking probiotics to ensure maximum benefits with minimum side effects.

    • Probiotics are living microorganisms thus may cause infections in immunocompromised people.
    • Probiotic supplements may cause allergic or food intolerance reactions. These reactions may be caused by the ingredients contained in the probiotics to keep the microorganisms alive. Therefore, it is important to choose the right product that does not contain undesirable ingredients (ie. Choose dairy free probiotics if you are allergic to dairy products).
    • Even though it is rare, but probiotics can sometimes interact with other drugs such as sulfasalazine.
    • Taking probiotics can sometimes cause digestive discomfort, such as bloating, diarrhea, constipation and flatulence. The discomfort usually goes away within a week after continued ingestion. However, sometimes the discomfort may be caused by a particular type of probiotics and when such incident occurs, changing to a different brand of probiotics may eliminate the problems.

    Final words

    Maintaining a properly balanced intestinal microflora is essential for living a healthy, feel-good life. Of course, not disturbing the balance of the microflora in the first place would be ideal. However, such feat is difficult to achieve for most people, for instance, most of us have taken antibiotics at some point in our lives. Taking appropriate probiotics supplements can provide the means of replenish the beneficial microflora population in the gastrointestinal track and hence to help the body to regain its balance that was once disrupted.

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