Thanks to the rapidly evolving field of study of the microbiome, researchers, naturopathic physicians, and enlightened medical docs are beginning to see that restoring the integrity of the gut barrier and supporting the health of the gut are critical to overall health.
Just how critical, you ask?
Dysregulated gut flora have been linked to a wide range of conditions including diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, autism spectrum disorder, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, and even cancer (to name a few). To be honest, I don’t know if there’s any condition where our gut isn’t involved to some degree.
What Does The Gut Actually Do?
Among other things, the gut flora promotes normal gastrointestinal function, provides protection from infection, regulates metabolism and comprises about 80% of our immune system.
The intestines aren’t a sterile place. In fact, the 300,000,000,000,000 (300 trillion) microorganisms that live in your gut include between 400-500 different species of bacteria. I’m gonna let that sink in. You are more bacteria than you are you!
Most of these guys are our little friends, working hard to help with digestion and to keep us healthy. Unbeknownst to you, these bacteria do loads of work on a daily basis. Just to list a few of their jobs, they:
- Create a physical barrier against potential invaders such as harmful bacteria, sickening viruses, and harmful parasites.
- Lend a hand in digestion and the absorption of nutrients, some of which depend on the actions of the bacteria to become assimilated into the body.
- Act as a detoxification machine. The gut’s microbes serve as a line of defense against many toxins that reach the intestines, ultimately taking some of the load off your liver.
- Produce and release important enzymes and substances, including vitamins and neurotransmitters, fatty acids, and amino acids. For example, they make lactic acid, which improves digestion of foods and increases absorption, as well as aiding peristalsis of the intestine. They make vitamin K, which aids in blood clotting. They make B-vitamins for us.
- Help us handle stress through its effects on our hormonal (endocrine) system.
- Dictate the immune system’s activity and response.
- Help regulate the body’s inflammatory pathways, which in turn affect risk for virtually all manner of chronic disease.
- They make chemicals which are healing to the large intestine, and their secretions hinder the “bad guys,” keeping their numbers in check. It’s only when certain “bad” strains of bacteria get out of control that we begin to experience problems. (I like to picture a tiny bad bug party that’s gotten out of hand!)
These microbes also play a critical role in mental health. The vagus nerve is thought of as the primary conduit between the enteric nervous system and the central nervous system, and it appears that probiotics may improve certain symptoms like anxiety.
What Causes Imbalances In Your Gut Bacteria?
Unfortunately, several components of our modern day life (including things you may have perceived as harmless) can directly contribute to unhealthy gut flora. To name a few:
- Medications. in particular, antibiotics, birth control, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) such as Advil, Motrin, Aleve or Naproxen. (Keep in mind that you are also exposed to a significant amount of antibiotics via your food. Make sure to be very particular about eating clean animal products.)
- Dietary toxins like wheat and other gluten containing grains.
- Dietary toxins like industrial seed oils (aka vegetable oils).
- Diets high in refined carbohydrates, sugar and processed foods.
- Artificial sweeteners.
- Diets low in fermentable fibers.
- GMO foods and pesticides.
- Chronic stress.
- Chlorinated/fluoridated water.
Steps You Can Take To Heal Your Gut
- Stop the damage. Eliminate all forms of food related toxins from your diet. Using the analogy of a boat with a hole in the hull. Before spending loads of time bailing water you must first stop the leak.
- Find new ways to lower your stress level. Get outside. Meditate. Have a dedicated prayer/bible study time.
- High quality probiotic supplements.
- Eat fermentable fibers (starches like sweet potato, yam, artichoke, yucca, etc.). Your good bacteria will thank you.
- Include fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, etc. in your diet daily! Pickles can be fermented, but store bought pickles usually aren’t. (Truly fermented foods will always be kept in the cooler because they contain living bacteria. If you find them on a shelf, they’re not the same.) If you’re shopping at a health food store, often you can find other fermented veggies as well. One of my favorites is a fermented okra by Hat Creek Provisions!
We all need to be mindful of maintaining the balance of our ecosystem inside. And in many situations a high quality supplement can be highly beneficial. And that’s where it can become tricky. Here’s a list of top quality brands to consider to make the task easier given the dozens of probiotic supplements on the market today:
- Prescript-Assist (UPDATE: No longer recommended – click here to see why.)
- Primal Blueprint – Primal Probiotics
- Innate Response
However, bodyecology.com gives us some reasons that fermented foods and drinks are superior to probiotic supplements:
- Beneficial bacteria and yeast in fermented foods and drinks are live and active! Whether you purchase fermented foods and drinks or make them at home, you are getting active bacteria.
- Fermentation pre-digests vital nutrients for you. Packed with B vitamins, minerals and enzymes, fermented foods and drinks are whole foods full of nutritional value in their own right. On top of that, the microflora increase the bioavailability of the nutrients in all the foods you eat by hundreds of times.
- Fermentation does not use heat. Your fermented foods and drinks retain their vital amino acids that can be destroyed by heat.
- You get a variety of live cultures supplied by nature in fermented foods and drinks. Lab produced probiotics are often a single strain of bacteria, like Lactobacillus acidophilus.
- Supplements contain bacteria only while fermented foods and drinks also contain “food” for the microflora to help promote their growth. It’s like sending the good guys down into your digestive tract with a lunchbox of goodies to sustain them on their long and perilous journey down under. Once they reach their destination (and IF they reach their destination) the microflora in a supplement need up to 6 hours to colonize in your intestines. The microflora in fermented foods and liquids are so hardy they start working at once.
- Fermented foods and drinks are acid-resistant and are viable in your system from the time they touch your lips all the way down into your gut
While foods/drinks are always superior to supplementation, they only work if you’re eating or drinking them! So like anything else, if you’re not able or willing to include these things in your daily routine, then supplementation is key.