Today, I thought I would spend my time writing about a meatier subject that’s been front and center in social media (and in numerous webinars) and that subject is our gut and how to keep it healthy.
Your gut ‘ecosystem’ is really the center of health as it is the biggest immune system in your body (60 – 70% of our immune system resides in your gut). And, these bacteria are an integral part of that system. There are actually 10 x more bacteria in your gut than you have human cells – so, in effect, you are more bacterial than human! It gives you pause, doesn’t it?
Our lifestyle choices, whether it is food, lack of sleep, medications we take, toxins in our environment, and increased stress impact the biodiversity and make-up of our bacterial garden (or ‘microbiota’). Some scientists go as far as stating that the gut microbiome is “our other genome”.
So, how does this work? What do these bacteria do and how does it impact us.
Let’s first look at your gut. Not necessarily a thing of beauty – but, it serves a very important purpose.
So, to dive in a bit further.
- Digestion starts with chewing (or mastication), enzymes in our saliva work to start breaking down components of the meal. And, it is important that we thoroughly chew the food to get the most benefit (remember being admonished by Mom to ‘slow down and chew your food’?).
- Once the food is swallowed, it end up in the stomach where acids and enzymes work to further break down the food into a slurry called ‘chyme’. Muscular contractions (the same ones that cause your ‘stomach to growl’) in the stomach force the contents into the small intestine where the beauty of digestion takes place. By the time your food leaves the small intestine, about 90% of the nutrients have been extracted from it.
- Finally, the contents move to the large intestine where water is reabsorbed into the body and additional bacteria break down the waste to extract additional nutrients. I believe I don’t have to discuss what happens next.
So, you find these microorganisms throughout the intestine and they can vary depending on the location in the pathway. They help take the energy we need through fermenting undigested carbohydrates (fiber) which, in turn, allows for the appropriate absorption of necessary short-chain fatty acids (butyrates, propionates, and acetates).
In addition, the microbiota assist in synthesizing vitamins B and K, and play a role of producing a protective barrier throughout the gut, as the gut mucosal wall is only one cell thick. So, these microorganisms deserve our respect!
Well, at least the good ones do. There are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ microorganisms, and that is where the problem lies. If you have good bacteria – you have proper digestion and better immunity as these organisms identify invaders (like microbes and toxins) and move them quickly down the digestive track.
Bad bacteria, or even low levels of bacteria can set you up for inflammation, obesity, insulin resistance, irritable bowel, and other problems (“Richness of human gut microbiome correlates with metabolic markers”. Nature, Vol. 500; 29 August, 2013). That’s why it is SO important to recolonize your intestinal track with probiotics after a course of antibiotics. What you eat really adds or subtracts from your health.
You see, your gut microbiota lives on the conditions of ‘what’s available’. If what’s available is not a good environment – the microbiota will change. And, those changes impact how you digest food.
For example, let’s look at artificial sweeteners. These sweeteners have been recommended for weight loss and for people suffering from glucose intolerance and diabetes. These sweeteners generally pass through the digestive track without being digested – so, when they enter the small intestine – the gut microbiota gets hit with the compounds that are foreign to our bodies. Studies have shown an alteration of the gut microorganisms in mice (“Artifical sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota”. Nature, Vol. 514; 9 October 2014). And, these changes led to obesity and glucose intolerance in these mice. Here is the kicker – when they transplanted the gut microbiota from the ‘artificial-sweetener induced’ obese mouse to a germ-free mouse – the germ-free mouse became glucose intolerant!!!
“But, these are mice!” you say. We are certainly not going to perform fecal transplants between humans. No – but, hold that thought…
When the researchers compared artificial-sweetener consumption versus various clinical parameters, they found ‘significant positive correlations between artificial-sweetener consumption and several metabolic-syndrome related clinical parameters, including increased weight and waist-to-hip ratio, higher fasting blood glucose, higher HbA1c, and evidence of the development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.’ Now, not all people showed these parameters when taking artificial sweeteners, so they looked at the subjects a little more closely.
Here is the highlight (in my opinion) of the study. When they took the microbiota from the people that responded to the artificial sweeteners and transplanted the material into the germ-free mice, the germ free mice started to exhibit some of the symptoms (vs. a control group).
Ironic isn’t it – the compounds we rely on to keep us thin actually have back-fired!
So, what is a person to do to help tend this wonderful ‘garden’. Here are some steps…
- Reduce sugar and processed food. These are very inflammatory.
- Reduce prolamines (like gluten). You don’t have to be celiac to be sensitive!
- Get rid of artificial sweeteners. You now know why.
- Eat ‘prebiotic food’. Lots of vegetables – again, undigested fiber is good for the gut microbiota.
- Take probiotics or eat probiotics. There are fermented foods (sauerkraut, yogurt (with live cultures), kombucha)).
- Reduce stress. I didn’t get into this – but, the gut is called the ‘second brain’. Stress impacts its performance.
So, again – eating real food is key to not only OUR health – but, the health of our bacterial ‘garden’ as well.