There’s a lot of buzz surrounding the gut these days; Microbiome, leaky gut, dysbiosis and food intolerances! The world of gut and digestive health can be an overwhelming one to navigate, so let’s simply break it down and get back to the basics on what the gut microbiome is, and why it is so important to our overall health and wellbeing. Research is exploding with new information about how our gut’s function extends far beyond digestion, affecting things like mental health and mood, immune health, cardiovascular health and weight management to name a few.
What is the gut microbiome?
Think of your microbiome as an entire ecosystem. A community of microorganisms including mostly bacteria, viruses and fungi. These are referred to as ‘microbes’. These microbes live mainly inside your intestines ( and on your skin) and play an enormous role in our overall health. These bacteria of course help with digestion and assimilation of our food and nutrients, but we are learning that their role extends far beyond that. There are various factors that influence the type and amount of bacteria we host.
It is estimated that people have more ‘non human’ cells in their body than human cells. Roughly 40 trillion bacterial cells and up to 1,000 different species of bacteria are found in the gut and make up 1-3% of our overall body weight. ( 2-6lbs!)
While some of these bacteria are associated with disease, the majority are extremely important for the day to day functioning of the physiological processes taking place in our bodies.
Such functions include:
- Digestion and Gut Health: Fiber plays an important role for or gut. Prebiotics, a known fiber, is digested by certain bacteria in the gut, easing symptoms of “IBS”. An imbalance of good and bad bacteria can cause these sx of IBS including bloating, cramps, and abdominal pain. This is caused by the fact that these microbes produce a lot of gas and other chemicals which contribute to intestinal discomfort.
- Immune Health: The microbiome controls how the immune system works, from communicating with immune cells to responding to an infection
- Brain Health and Mood: Certain species of bacteria help produce neurotransmitters. Seratonin is a NT that is mostly made in the gut. There are more receptors for serotonin in the gut than in the brain. A number of studies show that people with psychological disorders have different species of bacteria in their gut, compared to healthy people. Other studies show that certain strains of probiotics can improve symptoms of depression and other mental health concerns.
- Cardiovascular Health
- Metabolism and weight management
It is important to remember that our gut microbiome is unique to you and acts as a “blueprint”. Finding the right balance for optimizing your microbiome is a process that is unique to you, however there are many factors that influence the amount of overall bacteria we have, and the types of varying bacteria we have- both equally important for our health. Some of this in under our control ( think diet, lifestyle, food sensitivities, supplementation, hydration, stress management and hormone balancing) while others may not be in our control ( think genetics, illness, stressful events). Finding the right balance for optimizing your gut microbiome is a process that is unique to you.
How does the gut microbiome develop?
The microbiome begins to affect the body the moment we are born. We begin to populate our gut very early in life, without knowing it. We first come into contact with it as soon as we pass through the birth canal. Some even suggest we are exposed to it in the womb. When you’re born there are many factors that influence the types of bacteria you host- your genetics and health of your parents, whether you were delivered vaginally or by C section and whether you were breast or bottle fed.
As we age, the microbiome begins to diversify, meaning it starts to contain many different types of microbial species. There are various ways to shape the diversity of this flora, and as mentioned some are more difficult to change, therefore shifting our focus onto broader behaviors that we can control, is vital to promote a well-functioning gut microbiome.
Eat a diverse range of food. Food rotation every 4 days will ensure differing and adequate nutrients and types of fiber, as well as preventing food sensitivities. Higher microbiome diversity is considered better for overall health. Such diversity may mean that your gut is in a better position to fight off and resist pathogens. Plus, if one strain of bacteria is for some reason unable to do its job, another similar type can step in. In particular, fibrous foods like legumes, whole grains, fruit and vegetables.
- Eat fermented foods and take probiotics regularly. Think sauerkraut, tempeh, kombucha and kefir. These live bacterial cultures will restore gut flora and prevent an overgrowth of the bad bacteria.
- Eat prebiotic foods. This type of fiber will stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria. Think artichokes, banana, apple, oats and asparagus
- Eat whole grains. Not only do they contain a lot of fiber, but beneficial carbs like beta glucan which are digested by the gut bacteria, help benefit weight, cancer risk, and diabetes.
- Eat foods rich in polyphenols. Plant compounds in wine, green tea and dark chocolate are broken down by the gut to produce healthy bacterial groth
- Avoid antibiotics as much as possible. These kill off both the good and the bad flora
- Get tested for food sensitivities and avoid yours. Foods that your body cant digest or break down further contribute to underlying inflammation in the gut and digestive concerns
- Avoid inflammatory foods as much as possible
- Supplement with proper digestive support such as ( probiotics) digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid where it’s needed, L glutamine among others
- Avoid artificial sweeteners. Aspartame and others have been shown to increase blood sugar by stimulating the growth of unhealthy bacteria like enterobacteria in the gut microbiome.
- Stress management ( think acid reflux, ulcers, inflammation)
- Sleep hygiene
- Exercise regularly
What is dysbiosis?
In some instances the gut microbiome becomes imbalanced, meaning there is a disruption between the good and bad bacteria. Researching is finding that this may actually be an underlying cause for some of the most prevelant clinical conditions we are seeing right now. In small amounts these microbacteria found in our bodies are extremely beneficial and important for immune function and digestion, but when this balance is disturbed, with an increase growth in bad bacteria, this damages the way our digestive tract functions. As dysbiosis is becoming a growing problem in individuals, we are also seeing a rise in decreased immune function, thus leading to health conditions.
Dysbiosis can be caused by various things such as:
- Overprescribing of antibiotics, wiping out all good flora, leaving it hard to repopulate and reseed
- Standard North American diet, high is processed and refined foods, sugars, additives and preservatives. These foods all adversely alter the flora and balance, creating and environment where bad bacteria/candida can flourish. This food is also nutritionally void and calorically dense, resulting in obesity yet nutritionally starved at the same time.
- Foodborne pathogens, lingering pesticides, unwashed fruits and vegetables
- Drinking two or more alcoholic beverages a day/ drug use
- High levels of stress and anxiety
- Certain medications that decrease acid production ( PPI’s and antacids)
- Exposure to toxic and heavy metals and chemicals
Common symptoms of dysbiosis include:
- Bad breath
- Upset stomach
- Bloating and distention
- Nausea and or vomiting
- Constipation, diarrhea or irregular bowel movements
- Brain fog
- Poor concentration and memory
- Vaginal itching/ yeast infections
- Skin infections and rashes
- Anxiety and depression
What is leaky gut?
Also known as increased intestinal permeability, is a digestive concern, where bacteria, toxins, and undigested food particles are able to “leak” through the intestinal wall. Generally speaking, a healthy gut itself has a barrier and tight junctions that are effective at keeping these contents from getting absorbed into the bloodstream. An unhealthy gut lining may have large cracks or holes, allowing this partially digested food, toxins, and bugs to penetrate the tissues beneath it. This may trigger inflammation and may change the gut flora, thus affecting digestion and varying other inflammatory health conditions.
Research is booming with studies showing that modifications in the intestinal bacteria and inflammation may play a role in the development of several common chronic diseases. We already know that increased intestinal permeability or “leaky gut”, plays a role in GI conditions such as IBD (Chron’s and Colitis), Celiac disease and IBS. Other studies are showing that leaky gut may be associated with autoimmune conditions. This is an exciting time in science and medicine for the continuing development of how our gut microbiome directly influences our overall health.
Luckily, as we can see, there are several things we can do to keep our gut microbiota healthy, balanced and functioning optimally. How you eat, your exercise and sleep habits, your stress management techniques, the supplements you take and medications you take all affect and are examples of healthy gut loving tips all within our control.