Digestion. It's a hard thing to... digest? We all know about it when it isn't working right, both for us and for our pets. We see the ads on TV all the time talking about how to improve our digestive health. But do we realize just how important proper digestive health is to our lives?
70% or more of the immune system is in the digestive tract. The microbes living in the gut are an important part of that. In a healthy animal, up to 1000 different species of bugs live in their guts. Keeping the right ones happy, in the right proportion is the cornerstone of health for people and pets alike.
When we take anti-biotics, we generally take a probiotic, like acidophilis, to replenish gut bugs that the drugs might affect. But it is not only anti-biotics that can kill gut flora, or cause them to get out of balance.
High levels of stress, ingestion of bad bacteria, steroids, parasites... all these things can lead to an imbalance in the gut flora. When the bad bacteria start to flourish, it opens up the opportunity for other bad things to happen. We all know the signs of poor gut health, and none of them are pleasant. So the best line of defense is to prevent these things from happening in the first place.
When things do go bad, though, it's not hard to get things back on track. Probiotics are an important part of the equation, but not the only part. The other things we also tend to hear about are prebiotics and enzymes.
Enzymes are produced by the body to assist in digestion, different enzymes for different foods. By adding an enzyme product, you can assist the body in digestion, especially if it is compromised and cannot produce the needed enzymes. There are also products that assist the body in the adsorption of nutrition, enhancing the natural processes.
Prebiotics provide an environment that nurtures the good bacteria, allowing them to replenish their numbers and outcompete the bad bacteria. Prebiotics are generally soluble fibres, found in products like beet pulp, larch, chicory, and other natural forms, although they may also be called FOS (fructooligosaccharides) or inulin. Many commercial pet foods will include these items, as well as probiotics in their foods.
Providing the right environment for the good bacteria to grow (proper food, low stress levels and presence of prebiotics) allows for good gut health. Making sure the right species of bacteria are present to take advantage of those conditions is important as well. And that is where probiotics come in.
A probiotic can be a powder, dormant and waiting to reactivate, or a growing culture, like in yogurt or kefir. When you look at the labels on these products, how many little critters are in each serving is quite impressive. A raw goat milk kefir we have in store has 15 billion colony forming units (CFUs) per tablespoon. A dry product we have has 30 billion CFUs in a teaspoon. Compared to the total number of bacteria in the gut, those numbers are actually small, but they multiply rapidly under the right conditions, and by adding them to the animal's diet, they make sure the right bugs are growing in the gut.
When the gut is operating efficiently, that animal can get the nutrition from its food easier, and give the body the building blocks it needs to stay healthy. A healthy gut is a happy thing, both for our companion animals, and those that have to pick up after them.