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Gut Instinct

The whole human body is host to a myriad variety of bacteria, and the human gut is no exception. Known as intestinal flora or gut flora, it is the largest reservoir of human flora - a category that includes fungi, bacteria and protozoa that live in the human body - and contains anything from 300 to 1000 species of bacteria. The human body is composed of only about 10 trillion cells: but our gut is host to as many as 10 times that number of microorganisms.

How does gut flora form? As a foetus, the baby’s intestine is completely sterile; no bacteria yet lives in the gut. It is only after the birth process - and, for babies that were delivered vaginally, during - that the baby, as it becomes exposed to the air, the environment and other people, picks up its first bacteria colony.

This is not a bad thing! Broadly speaking, there are three main kinds of bacteria in our gut. Bad bacteria, which may cause infection and inflammatory problems, leading to to sickness or even death; commensal bacteria, which can either be good or bad for us depending on the situation; and probiotic bacteria, which are actively good for us.

Gastroenteritis is one of the more common problems experienced by Singaporeans and is caused by the overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the gut. Symptoms include intestinal inflammation, bad absorption of food, diarrhoea together with abdominal cramps, fever and other symptoms commonly associated with food poisoning.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is another common gut flora related problem. In many cases, IBS is first caused by a particularly bad bout of infective gastroenteritis. When the immunity system is further weakened by stress or bad dieting habits, the bad bacteria from the gastroenteritis may overwhelm the intestinal ecosystem, tipping the balance between good and bad bacteria. The result? Bowel spasms, excessive gas and diarrhoea.

While the symptoms of IBS may sound trivial, perhaps even amusing, they can be quite disruptive to one’s life. Some patients are unable to function in normal life with stress-induced diarrhoea preventing them from working or living a full life, while others have their social or family life disrupted by frequent visits to the toilet or abdominal pain and distress.

To keep one’s guts in good condition, the normal instruction of good food cooking and eating is just as applicable, preventing the introduction of pathogenic bacteria into the gut system, In addition, each of us should try to ensure that we have a good regularly intake of healthy probiotic bacteria. These bacteria promote health and keep the gut’s immunological system healthy, intact, and in balance.