People often ask me ‘if there is one thing I could do for my health what would it be?’ It can be a difficult question to answer when you consider all the different things the body needs to be healthy. By far the one thing needed for health is a fresh, whole food diet which provides all the nutrients needed for the body to function optimally. This is always my first recommendation to patients and should be something we all aim for. However the health of the gut is becoming a key aspect of consideration for many of my patients, regardless of their presenting complaint. In this post I will discuss the importance of gut health, how it can contribute to many health concerns and what you can do to keep you gut happy and healthy.
For every human cell in the body there are around 10 microbes, most of which live in the digestive tract. So there is literally more of them than there is us. These microbes are made up of different bacteria, yeasts, parasites and protozoa, and all of them have the potential to have a positive or negative effect on our health. It was Hippocrates who said ‘all disease begins in the gut’. Some 2400 later we are only just starting to understand the significance of these words.
The development of the human microbiome begins from birth and the type of birth can have a significant impact. Babies born vaginally are exposed to diverse bacteria in the birth canal which will begin to colonise immediately. This bacteria goes onto stimulate immune system function and will feed on the indigestible components of breast milk. Babies who are delivered via cesearian are exposed to a completely different range and number of bacteria which may come from the doctor, bed sheets or from other surroundings during the birth. Studies are showing that babies who miss this all important inoculation of microbes from mum are at a higher risk of developing immune related diseases and may seem intolerant to breast milk. The microbes received during birth can set the foundation for life, so it is important that the right ones set up camp first.
The function of these microbes ranges from helping to digest food, produce certain nutrients and can even have an impact on inflammation and immune responses within the body. This is because they line the surface of the gut wall and can contribute to the permeability of the bowel. Increased gut permeability also known as leaky gut occurs when then tight junctions of the gut lining become loose, allowing particles which should stay in the gut out into the bloodstream. The body cant recognise these foreign particles and will then initiate an immune response and inflammation in the body. This can lead to numerous problems including raised insulin, poor immunity, auto immune conditions and skin issues.
The number of and types of microbes in the gut can have a significant impact on our health. You have probably heard of certain bacteria such as Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium both of which are two types or genus of bacteria and are considered ‘good’ bacteria. Each genus then has a number of different strains, with some having a very specific impact on our health. For example Lactobacillus acidophilus can help an irritable bowel, diarrhoea and lactose intolerance. Lactobacillus brevis helps boost cellular immunity and fights bad bacteria such as H. pylori (the type that can cause stomach ulcers). Bifidobacterium longum has been shown to help liver function and reduce inflammation.
Examples of ‘bad’ bacteria include Enterobacter, Clostridium difficile, Campylobacter, Salmonella and certain strains of E.coli. Some of these have the potential to be life threatening, while others can just make things very uncomfortable. If the bad guys start to out number the good, problems will begin to occur and will affect more than just the digestive system.
One of the biggest threats to gut bacteria is antibiotics. While they are some times necessary, there is no doubt that they are often over prescribed. The purpose of antibiotics is to kill bad bacteria, but unfortunately the can be unselective and will kill the good guys too. If these are not consciously replaced through probiotics or fermented food the bad guys have an open door to get in and take up residency. Other problems that can affect the diversity of gut bacteria include a poor diet that does not feed the good bacteria, too much sugar which feed the bad, inflammation, stress, insufficient bile production, alcohol and continuing to eat food that you know does not react well in your body.
So how can you maintain a diverse range of gut bacteria? It is important that you consume a diet rich in fibre. Fibre or prebiotics is what the good guys feed on, so if they don’t have a regular food source they will die off. Probiotic rich food is also important. Anything that has been fermented such as yoghurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir provide a good range of bacterial strains which the gut loves. Sometimes it is important to start with just a small amount of fermented food each day to avoid any discomfort caused by the battle of the bugs going on in the gut.
Probiotics are an other way to improve the diversity of gut bacteria. When looking for a probiotic for general health, look for one that has a high number of strains. Products can vary from 2 to 12 different strains, and you should try to buy as many as you can afford. Because they all do different things they all have a place in contributing to your overall health. You also need to consider the number of bacteria per capsule. Again this can vary from 8 billion to 65 billion and more. When more of the good guys are going in, the bad guys will be out numbered and the potential for harm will be reduced.
An unbalanced microbiome can contribute to a number of systemic health problems including sleep issues, brain fog and poor concentration, digestive issues and discomfort, heart burn, lowered immunity, bad breath, sugar cravings, the list can really go on. With so many areas of the body being affected it is easy to see how ‘all disease begins in the gut’, and highlights why paying attention to both the good and the bad guys is so important.