Driving home for Christmas… and some monkfish

I’ll be going home for Christmas in a week. I cannot wait!

I aim, in the short 12 days of my Holiday break, to soak up as much as I can. It’s a big task: I have a long list of things to do… and eat.

Portugal has many Christmas gastronomic traditions and I will partake in many, but the one I am craving the most involves the ugliest yet tastiest fish ever – the monkfish.

Continue reading “Driving home for Christmas… and some monkfish”


In gut we trust – we are what we eat

Bacteria have been around for a while (at least two and a half billion years) and will outlive us, humans. For many years, they have been accused of all evils and antibiotics were viewed as the holy grail for saving lives… Not anymore – bacteria are our allies!

Scientists are now realizing that there are 100 trillion bacteria that live in cooperation with and in our gut (making up what they call the gut microbiome). A big chunk of these microorganisms has such an important role in our wellbeing that scientists and health agencies are willing to spend millions of dollars studying them.

Previously, we talked about the role of such microorganisms in our guts, the importance of a balanced gut ecosystem and how our western way of life is killing our shielding gut bacteria. The good news is that the solution is in everyone’s mouth: we are what we eat.


Probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics – everyone has heard of them, maybe gave them a try but do we really understand their potential? 

What are they?

PROBIOTICS are live microorganisms which, when taken in adequate amounts, give us a health benefit. These microorganisms have to resist (at least, partially) the digestion process to reach the intestine and are naturally abundant in some food or may be ingested in the form of dietary supplements.

Their main function is to populate (or repopulate) the ecosystem with beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Enterococcus and Streptococcus, among others.

Probiotics, Prebiotics and Synbiotics
Probiotics, Prebiotics, and Synbiotics – what are they?

But seeding bacteria in our guts may not be enough. For a healthy gut, we need to feed these microorganisms with the proper food to promote their growth and activity – the PREBIOTICS. Examples include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fermented foods.

Another emergent term is SYNBIOTICS. Basically, this encompasses all foods and nutritional supplements that combine pro- and prebiotic benefits.

What are the benefits of taking probiotics?

People take probiotics mostly to improve their digestive functions, but some studies state their positive effect on the immune status and in the prevention of certain diseases.

A healthy gut is a combination of multiple factors.
A healthy gut is a combination of multiple factors.


The list of benefits is ever growing; some medical claims are more evident than others. To keep abreast of all the information here are some helpful sources

  • EatRightOntario.ca for practical advice on probiotics
  • for a complete list of clinical claims check the Word Gastroenterology Organization’s website
  • For help on how to make Smart Choices on Probiotics and Prebiotics

How do probiotics work?

The normal interaction between gut microorganisms and their host is a win-win (symbiotic) relationship.

As you know, the intestine’s main function is to absorb nutrients and water essential for our survival. Bacteria help in the absorption of some vitamins, but they also stimulate our immune defense. Approximately 60% of the body’s immune cells are in the intestinal wall to protect us from allergies (from the foods we eat) and infections (from the pathogens that may occur there).

Probiotics (the live microorganisms) compete for food and a favourable environment with pathogens preventing colonization of opportunistic and pathogenic microorganisms and, at the same time, stimulate the intestinal cells’ immune response.

All that in exchange for some food and shelter. Great tenants we have, eh?

Cheers, Gisela

In gut we trust

My sister was right. I had an imbalance that I had to treat.

The antibiotic I took successfully cured my respiratory infection. It killed the enemy that was making me sick but also took down some good troops in the battle.

There are 10 times more bacteria in our body than human cells!

Gut microbiome: microscopic communities that live inside our gut

Inside your gut:  Amazing picture of the microscopic communities that live inside our gut; the gut cells are in blue, and the bacteria from the genus Firmicutes in yellow and Bacteroidetes in fuchsia. Credits: Popular Science and Kristen A. Earle, 2014 (Cell Host & Microbe)

A microscopic society of bacteria, protists (other unicellular cells), viruses and fungi colonize almost every part of our body without causing us any harm.

Scientists are now realizing that different communities (microbiomes) live in different habitats in our body (mouth, skin, bellybutton, vagina and, especially, in the gut) which is radically changing how we see either curative or preventive medicine.

The experiment

Going back to basics, almost 10 years ago scientists sampled bacteria from different parts of the body of 240 healthy individuals. The so-called Human Microbiome Project sought to understand the complex relationships between these microorganisms and humans.

This ground-breaking initiative was followed by other projects and, in 2012, the International Human Microbiome Consortium was formed.

The huge interest in this type of research is understandable: studies have demonstrated a connection between our microbiome composition and a number of chronic health conditions (gastrointestinal, autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, asthma), as well as certain neurological diseases (Alzheimer) and behavioural changes (depression).

Scientists are also realizing that the microbiome can be an important ally for certain therapies. Gut microbes can help reduce inflammation and influence how the immune system deals with cancer, affecting the efficacy of certain anti-cancer drugs.

Our gut microbiome is under attack

Antibiotics, although developed to target specifically certain types of bacteria, can deeply disturb our gut microbial allies. A recent study showed that these drugs can have severe long-term impacts in the microbial community of the gut. The body may take up to a year to recover!

The typical Western diets (high in fat, cholesterol, sugar and salt and low in soluble and insoluble fibers) and stress also affects our gut microbiome ecosystem.

The rescue is in what we eat. Some solutions are easier to swallow than others: prebiotics, probiotics, and synbiotics but also… fecal transplants!

There is still a long way to go for this research, but it is clear to all that a definite way to optimize the gut flora is through a diverse and balanced diet.

All attempts to repair a dysfunctional gut community have in common the reestablishment of the primordial composition of the gut microbiome via probiotics (ingestion of live cultures) or even fecal transplants (yes… you read it right!). But this may not be enough – a proper environment needs to be fostered (with probiotics and synbiotics) to promote the good bacteria multiplication.

Stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes of a healthy gut. If you want to know more about the gut microbiota, check out the cool infographic below (available at the Gut Microbiota Worldwatch website).

Getting to know your gut microbiome by the Gut Microbiota & Health Section of the European Society of Neurogastroenterology and Motility (ESNM), Gut Microbiota Worldwatch.microbiotagraphic_en72


Have you heard about microbiomes? Will you think twice before taking an antibiotic?

Cheers, Gisela