Gut Health: The Most Important Missing LinkFayyaz Alam
Your gut or gastrointestinal (GI) tract is a major contributor not only to your digestive health, but also to your body’s immunity, energy and metabolism, hormone balance and even your mood.1,2 You are probably wondering how this is possible when your gut is only there to digest the food you eat. Actually, gut health is about more than the smooth inner workings of processing food and turning it into feces. It is all about balance and finding an equilibrium between the trillions of good and bad bacteria that live there.1 If this balance of bacteria in the gut is disrupted, it can have a severe impact on your health and can even lead to the development of autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases and a number of other health issues.1
In this article we will look at the following aspects of gut health and the natural treatments you can take to keep your gut happy:
- What is the gut microbiome?
- What is the impact of the gut microbiome on the rest of your body?
- What are the causes of a dysfunctional microbiome?
- What are the natural treatments you should consider that can help heal your gut?
What is the gut microbiome?
The word “microbiome” essentially refers to microorganisms living together in an environment (biome). In this case, the environment is your gut and the microorganisms, also called microbiota, are the trillion different types of bacteria that exist in a symbiotic relationship within your body. Microbiota can include fungi and viruses and are also present on your skin and in your mouth, nose and genitals. 1,3
Your microbiota is unique to you, just like your DNA, and is inherited from your mother during your birth. Babies born naturally will have microbiota resembling that of the cervical opening, while babies born via cesarean will have microbiota resembling that of the skin.3 A baby’s microbiome will start to develop as early as 20 minutes after birth, with a boost from its mother’s microbiota, and will already resemble that of an adult by the time the baby turns one year.3
As you grow up, your microbiome will be influenced by various other factors like the food you eat, the area you live in, illness, antibiotic treatment, sleeping patterns, stress and other bacteria you might be exposed to on a daily basis.3 Ultimately, you can shape your microbiome in a good or bad way, depending on your way of life. Luckily, this means that if you have gut health problems, it can be corrected by making certain lifestyle changes.
How does the gut microbiome impact your health?
According to recent studies1,4 there is evidence that the gut microbiome does not only absorb nutrients and keeps the gut healthy, but it can also have an effect on how much you eat, energy metabolism and immune response. A healthy gut, not under the influence of medicines, certain foods or illness, will be able to stimulate receptors that can make you eat less, improve glucose metabolism, immune defense and mood, and reduce inflammation. It is the small gut cells, called epithelial cells that help to translate these messages and interacts continuously with the microbes in the gut and the large number of immune cells present.1
The influence of your microbiome on digestion
- Certain foods like plant cellulose are indigestible. With the help of the bacteria in the microbiome, humans are able to extract nutrients from otherwise indigestible substances.9
The influence of your microbiome on immunity
- The epithelial cells in your gut helps to translate information to your immune cells, telling them which molecules and microorganisms are harmful to your body.1
- When you suffer from poor gut health, these immunity messages will be disrupted and can lead to the development of autoimmune diseases.1
The influence of your microbiome on weight and obesity
- Your gut sends messages to your brain that you are full. When there is inflammation in your gut, these messages are disrupted, and you can end up eating more than you should.6
- There’s a difference between the microbiota of obese people eating unhealthy foods, and that of more healthy people following a more clean diet.10
- Bad bacteria in the gut can cause insulin resistance that can lead to diabetes and weight gain.6
The influence of your microbiome on mood and cognitive function
- The medical and scientific world has long been in discussion that your microbiome, brain and gut talk to each other and are able to influence each other via various different pathways.6
- The brain gut connection can influence your behavior, mood, higher cognitive function and decision making.6
- Studies show that certain good bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species living in the gut can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.5
What causes bad bacteria overgrowth in the gut and what are the dangers?
The microbiome manages a delicate balance of good and bad bacteria. When the good bacteria are present in greater concentrations, your gut will be happy and working in optimal condition. But when more bad bacteria are present, the whole system can become dysfunctional, or go into dysbiosis, and this can lead to serious health problems.4
- Eating too much sugar and processed foods
- Taking antibiotics
- High stress and anxiety
- Poor sleep quality and sleep pattern
- Environmental toxins like pesticides present on food and in drinking water
When the balance of bacteria in the gut shifts to the bad side, you can experience mood problems, lack of energy, acne breakouts, joint pain caused by increased inflammation, food cravings, weight gain and yeast (candida) infections.10 If you do not address the cause of the problem, the constant exposure to bad bacteria in an increasingly inflammatory environment can lead to the development of autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases.4
The ultimate disaster for your gut: leaky gut syndrome
Your gut is in control of what nutrients and substances are allowed to pass into the bloodstream via tight junctions. Leaky gut syndrome develops when these junctions become looser or start to make small holes or cracks in the intestinal wall. When this happens, undigested food, bacteria and toxins can leak into the bloodstream.7 This can trigger an inflammatory state and immune response throughout your body. When these toxins continuously circulate through your system it can cause fatigue, moodiness, bloating, digestive problems and even food allergies. The main contributor to diseases like Celiac and Crohn’s is increased intestinal permeability.7,8 A leaky gut is caused by poor gut health as a result of harmful bacterial overgrowth.
Healing your gut naturally
The balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut are influenced by your diet and lifestyle. This means that you can rebalance the equilibrium using foods to alter your microbiota to the side of the good.
The first step to healing your gut is to exclude the foods that are causing harm. A good way to do this is to go through a nutritional detox program. A nutritional detox eliminates most harmful foods and food groups from your diet and replaces them with healthy alternatives.11 During a detox you boost your body’s natural detoxifying system (the liver) by eating nutrient dense foods. After an initial shock and some unpleasantness, as your body works to remove the toxins by excreting them in the urine and sweat, the inflammation and the attack on your immune system will start to reduce as a result. These effects will also be seen in your digestion and gut health.
A detox diet can be done in various ways and can include things like fasting, juicing and bowel cleansing. Bowel cleansing is done by taking laxatives, using enemas or colon hydrotherapy.11Detoxing is not for everyone and it is advised that you speak to a health care practitioner first if you have conditions like diabetes (can influence blood glucose levels) or high blood pressure.
If you decide not to do a detox, you can also remove the harmful foods from your diet by doing an elimination diet and keeping a food diary. By eliminating certain foods, one at a time, you can note how it makes you and your gut feel. For instance, removing products containing gluten might stop that chronic diarrhea you’ve been suffering from.
What foods should you avoid that can be harming your gut health?
Certain foods can increase inflammation throughout the body, leading to cell damage and overactive immune responses. It’s best to avoid these foods as they are harming your gut.
- Unhealthy added sugars that come with packaged and processed foods, breads, sauces
- Refined carbohydrates like bread, cakes, pastas
- Refined vegetable oils (increases inflammation)
- Pasteurized dairy products that can cause food allergies and can contain traces of antibiotics
- Too much animal protein in your diet can harm the microbiome. This can be as a result of the GMO grains fed to animals and antibiotic intake
- Fried foods may contain trans fats and more toxicity due to high heat processing that increases inflammation and harm cells. They are also more difficult to digest
Eat these foods to help restore the balance to your microbiome
1. Probiotics Supplements
Probiotics are live microorganisms that has health benefits when they are consumed. The microorganisms that are used in probiotic products are the same, or closely related to the microorganisms living in our gut.12 This means when we consume foods and supplements with probiotic cultures, they can help to boost the good bacteria in the gut.
The most common types of probiotics are from the microorganism groups called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. The different strains of these bacteria can have different beneficial effects in the body.12 Taking a probiotic while you are on antibiotic therapy can prevent antibiotic-related diarrhea. Probiotic supplement dosages are measured in CFUs (colony forming units). The adult dose is anything between 10-20 billion CFUs. The more diverse, meaning greater varieties of bacteria, and a larger amount of CFU the better the supplement.
- Foods that contain probiotic cultures:
- Organic cultured yogurt
- Organic cultured cheese products
- Fermented foods (see section 3 below)
Prebiotics are not the same as probiotics. Prebiotics refer to certain foods that are not completely digestible. As these foods pass through the gut, the bacteria in our gut starts to ferment them, to help them break down, and feeds off them.13 This promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria.
One of the groups of prebiotics are called fructoogliosaccharides (FOS), that is made from fructose.13 Foods like yacon and raw yacon syrup are packed with FOS and is a good low-calorie sugar replacement with amazing prebiotic benefits.
Types of prebiotic foods include:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Whole wheat
3. Fermented foods
Fermenting food as a means of preserving it is a process that has been done for centuries. It was soon discovered that the fermenting process can boost the nutritional properties of food, not only their shelf-life.9 Fermentation is a spontaneous process that takes place where sugars, in the absence of oxygen, are converted into alcohols and gasses. This can change the texture and appearance of the food and introduces different types of microorganisms, like bacteria and yeasts, to the product.9
Most fermented foods contain probiotics and their consumption will benefit your gut health and microbiome. These foods will usually be fermented by a natural fermentation process, and not by a conventional “pickling-in-vinegar” process. Make sure the fermented foods you buy are organic, naturally fermented with the presence of probiotic cultures.9
Here are some of the top fermented foods to boost gut health that you can add to your everyday diet:
- Sourdough bread
Other foods to include in your diet can be foods high in fiber to help digestion and foods high in phytonutrients and antioxidants like berries, tomatoes, kale, broccoli, spinach, red grapefruit and carrots.
Foods that have anti-inflammatory properties can help to reduce the inflammation in your gut caused by a diet rich in processed sugary and carbohydrate-heavy foods. By adding foods like organic raw honey (naturally rich in probiotic), turmeric, ginger and wild-caught fish to your diet can further boost your body’s own inflammation fighting mechanisms.
Here are some lifestyle tips to help you keep your gut in tip-top shape:
- Avoid using antibiotics, if you can help it, because it not only kills the bad bacteria but the good bacteria as well. Raw honey products have amazing natural antibiotic properties, try to use them instead.
- Reduce your stress. Chronic stress can amp up the inflammation and immune response in your body and can harm the balance of your gut microbiome.
- Exercise more to reduce stress and inflammation.
- Use food supplements that are high in antioxidants and phytonutrients to help fight inflammation. Omega-3 fish oil is a natural anti-inflammatory supplement.
- Drink less alcohol. Alcohol can severely damage the bacteria in your gut.
- Eat a balanced diet with enough fresh and fermented foods, and low in sugar and carbohydrates. This is the key to keeping your gut happy.
Once you grasp the importance of keeping your gut happy and the effect it can have on your physical and mental health, you will start to be mindful of what you eat. Cutting processed foods and replacing them with healthy fruits and vegetables and opting for organic produce wherever possible, can already make a big difference in your gut health. When your microbiome is happy, you will be happy, feel energized and ready to take on the stress of everyday life – with a little bit of help from your gut.
- Cani, P. (2018). Human gut microbiome: hopes, threats and promises. [online] Gut BMJ. Available at: https://gut.bmj.com/content/67/9/1716 [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019].
- Ursell, L. K., Metcalf, J. L., Parfrey, L. W., & Knight, R. (2012). Defining the human microbiome. Nutrition reviews, 70 Suppl 1(Suppl 1), S38–S44. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2012.00493.x. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3426293/ [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019]
- Stearns, J. C., Lynch, M. D., Senadheera, D. B., Tenenbaum, H. C., Goldberg, M. B., Cvitkovitch, D. G., … Neufeld, J. D. (2011). Bacterial biogeography of the human digestive tract. Scientific reports, 1, 170. doi:10.1038/srep00170. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3240969/ [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019].
- Lynch, S. and Pedersen, O. (2016). The Human Intestinal Microbiome in Health and Disease. New England Journal of Medicine, [online] 375(24), pp.2369-2379. Available at: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMra1600266 [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019].
- Johnson, K. and Foster, K. (2018). Why does the microbiome affect behaviour?. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 16(10), pp.647-655. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41579-018-0014-3 [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019].
- Mayer, E. (2011). Gut feelings: the emerging biology of gut–brain communication. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, [online] 12(8), pp.453-466. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn3071 [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019].
- Mu, Q., Kirby, J., Reilly, C. and Luo, X. (2017). Leaky Gut As a Danger Signal for Autoimmune Diseases. Frontiers in Immunology, [online] 8. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2017.00598/full [Accessed 11 Nov. 2019].
- Campos, M. (2017). Leaky gut: What is it, and what does it mean for you? – Harvard Health Blog. [online] Harvard Medical School. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/leaky-gut-what-is-it-and-what-does-it-mean-for-you-2017092212451 [Accessed 11 Nov. 2019].
- Bell, V., Ferrão, J., Pimentel, L., Pintado, M., & Fernandes, T. (2018). One Health, Fermented Foods, and Gut Microbiota. Foods (Basel, Switzerland), 7(12), 195. doi:10.3390/foods7120195. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6306734/ [Accessed: 11 Nov. 2019].
- Genetic Science Learning Center (2019). The Microbiome and Disease. [online] Learn.genetics.utah.edu. Available at: https://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/microbiome/disease/ [Accessed 11 Nov. 2019].
- NCCIH (2019). “Detoxes” and “Cleanses”: What You Need To Know. NCCIH. Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/detoxes-cleanses [Accessed 11 Nov. 2019].
- NCCIH (2019). Probiotics: What You Need To Know. [online] NCCIH. Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/probiotics/introduction.htm [Accessed 12 Nov. 2019].
- Davani-Davari, D., Negahdaripour, M., Karimzadeh, I., Seifan, M., Mohkam, M., Masoumi, S., Berenjian, A. and Ghasemi, Y. (2019). Prebiotics: Definition, Types, Sources, Mechanisms, and Clinical Applications. Foods, 8(3), p.92. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6463098/ [Accessed 12 Nov. 2019].
- Ciabattini, A., Olivieri, R., Lazzeri, E. and Medaglini, D. (2019). Role of the Microbiota in the Modulation of Vaccine Immune Responses. Frontiers in Microbiology, [online] 10. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6616116 [Accessed 15 Nov. 2019].
- Yuan, L., Tsai, P. and Bell, K. (2018). Do microbiota mediate adverse vaccine reaction?. [online] Alliedacademies.org. Available at: https://www.alliedacademies.org/articles/do-gut-microbiota-mediate-adverse-vaccine-reaction.pdf [Accessed 15 Nov. 2019].
- Jamieson, A. (2015). Influence of the microbiome on response to vaccination. Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics, [online] 11(9), pp.2329-2331. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4635895/ [Accessed 15 Nov. 2019].