Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is quoted as saying, “bad digestion is at the root of all evil” and “death sits in the bowels.” What Hippocrates likely meant was that the GI tract, or “gut,” is responsible for much more than digesting food; it plays a vital role in creating and sustaining health. Nearly 2,500 years later, scientists are discovering that Hippocrates was right. You simply cannot have a “sick” gut and be truly healthy!
The “gut”, which is made up of the stomach, small intestine and colon (large intestine), is actually a complex microsystem of “good” bacteria, or microflora. While bacteria also live in our mouths, on our skin and in our urogenital tract, more than 70 percent take up residence in the mucosal tissue lining of the gut, which is known as the gut-associated lymphoid tissue, or GALT. The trillions of beneficial bacteria inside the gut comprise a metabolically active organ—the largest immune organ in the body—and are important for a variety of essential functions, including regulating digestion, producing and metabolizing vitamins and other trace nutrients, and protecting the body from infection.
The gut also contains pathogenic “bad” bacteria, such as E. coli. When the balance of good and bad bacteria goes awry, humans and animals can experience a myriad of digestive disturbances, including bloating, constipation or diarrhea, as well as abdominal cramping, surface erosions, and ulcers. But the relationship between gut bacteria and health extends far beyond the digestive system.
For example, gut microflora serves as a significant barrier to infection from outside pathogens, preventing unwanted invaders such as food toxins, toxic chemicals, bad bacteria and fungi from entering our systems. A condition called “leaky gut” arises when the integrity of the gut’s mucosal lining is compromised, causing it to become permeable, or “leaky.” When this occurs, unwanted molecules are allowed to pass through. Since the body recognizes these molecules as foreign, it attacks them. Science is now learning that “leaky gut” likely contributes to a variety of autoimmune diseases, including Type 1 diabetes and autoimmune thyroiditis.
Other conditions linked to imbalances in the gut’s bacterial ecosystem include:
A recently released study by the Cleveland Clinic exemplifies the important role of gut bacteria. The study found that some gut bacteria produce a compound called trimethylamine- N-oxide, or TMAO, while digesting lecithin found in foods such as egg yolks, liver, beef, pork and wheat germ. The researchers also found that blood levels of TMAO predict heart attack, stroke and death—independent of other risk factors. The fact that gut bacteria can cause heart attack, stroke and death, even in otherwise “healthy” people, is a true testament to their importance!
Obviously, to create and maintain health, we want to keep the gut microflora in tip-top shape. But if the gut is teeming with trillions of good bacteria, what’s the problem?
Many environmental factors can disrupt gut bacteria, throwing the balance between good and bad bacteria out of whack, including:
Fortunately, you can help keep your pet’s gut in tip-top shape by giving him probiotics.
Probiotics are live, beneficial bacteria. When ingested in sufficient numbers, probiotics colonize in the gut, thereby supplementing the existing beneficial microflora.
Probiotics can provide many health benefits in pets, including:
But don’t just run out and buy any product labeled “probiotic”. The product you purchase should meet strict standards, including:
Contain live bacteria. The product is not a probiotic unless the bacteria are live.
Contain multiple bacterial strains. Different strains of bacteria exert different biological activities. Look for a product containing at least 10 different strains.
Is potent. When it comes to a probiotic, the more potent the better. While some products contain 1 billion beneficial bacteria per serving, I advise looking for a product containing at least 30 billion or more beneficial bacteria per serving.
Is pure. A probiotic is designed to increase gut health. The last thing you want is a product that contains artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, sugar, salt, corn, wheat, soy or other undesirable ingredients.
And please don’t share your probiotic with your pet. An animal’s intestinal tract contains species-specific microflora, so a probiotic that’s beneficial for you isn’t necessarily beneficial for your companion animal. Opt instead for a probiotic targeted specifically to your pet’s species.
Supplementing your companion animal’s diet with a probiotic is a simple, safe and effective way to optimize gut health. You might just be amazed at the positive improvements these “gut bugs” can make!
Photograph by S. Kápl