Q: I have been following many of your articles, as well as a lot of the current research out there, and it seems like everyone is discussing the importance of good gut bacteria for health. Can you explain a little, but more about why this is so important? And if I have “bad” bacteria in my gut, what can I do about it?
A: Doctors are trained to identify diseases by where they are located. If you have asthma, it’s considered a lung problem; if you have rheumatoid arthritis, it must be a joint problem; if you have acne, doctors see it as a skin problem; if you are overweight, you must have a metabolism problem; if you have allergies, the immune imbalance is blamed.
Doctors who understand health this way are both right and wrong. Sometimes the causes of your symptoms do have some relationship to their location, but that’s far from the whole story. As we come to understand disease in the 21st century, our old ways of defining illness based on symptoms are not very useful. Instead, by understanding the origins of disease and the way in which the body operates as one, whole, integrated ecosystem, we now know that symptoms appearing in one area of the body may be caused by imbalances in an entirely different system.
If your skin is bad or you have allergies, can’t seem to lose weight, suffer from an autoimmune disease or allergies, struggle with fibromyalgia, or have recurring headaches, the real reason may be that your gut is unhealthy. This may be true even if you have NEVER had any digestive complaints. There are many other possible imbalances in your body’s operating system that may drive illness, as well. These include problems with hormones, immune function, detoxification, energy production, and more. But for now, let’s take a deeper look at the gut and why it may be at the root of your chronic symptoms.
Research Linking Gut Bacteria and Inflammation To Chronic Illness
Scientists compared gut flora (bacteria) from children in Florence, Italy who ate a diet high in meat, processed fats, and sugar to children from a West African village in Burkina Faso who ate beans, whole grains, vegetables, and nuts. The bugs in the guts of the African children were healthier, more diverse, better at regulating inflammation and infection, and better at extracting energy from fiber. The bugs in the guts of the Italian children produced by-products that create inflammation, promote allergy, asthma, autoimmunity, and lead to obesity.
Why is this important?
In the West, our increased use of antibiotics and enhancements in hygiene have led to health improvements for many. Yet these same factors have dramatically changed the ecosystem of bugs in our gut, and this has a broad impact on health that is still largely unrecognized. There are trillions of bacteria in your gut, and they collectively contain at least 100 times as many genes as you do. The bacterial DNA in your gut outnumbers your own DNA by a very large margin. This bacterial DNA controls immune function, regulates digestion and intestinal function, protects against infections, and even produces vitamins and nutrients.
Can bacteria in the gut actually affect the brain? They can! Toxins, metabolic by-products, and inflammatory molecules produced by these unfriendly bacteria can all adversely impact the brain. When the balance of bacteria in your gut is optimal, this DNA works for you to great effect. For example, some good bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids. These healthy fats reduce inflammation and modulate your immune system. Bad bugs, on the other hand, produce fats that promote allergy and asthma, eczema, and inflammation throughout your body. Problems with gut flora are even linked to autism!
Autoimmune diseases are also linked to changes in gut flora. A recent study showed that children who use antibiotics for acne may alter normal flora, and this, in turn, can trigger changes that lead to autoimmune diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease or colitis.
Five Steps to a Healthy Gut (and a Healthy Body)
Eat a fiber-rich, whole foods diet—it should be rich in beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, all of which feed good bugs.
Limit sugar, processed foods, animal fats, and animal protein—these provide food for unhealthy bugs.
Avoid the use of antibiotics, acid blockers, and anti-inflammatories—they change gut flora for the worse.
Take high-dose probiotics daily (100 billion or more) - these healthy and friendly florae can improve your digestive health and reduce inflammation and allergy.
Consider specialized testing—such as organic acid testing, stool testing (new tests can look at the DNA of the bacteria in your gut), and others to help assess your gut function. You will likely have to work with a functional medicine practitioner to effectively test and treat imbalances in your gut.
And if you have a chronic illness, even if you don’t have digestive symptoms, you might want to consider what is living inside your gut. Tending to the garden within can be the answer to many seemingly unrelated health problems.
Recommended Reading: The Microbiome Solution by Robyne Chutkan
To schedule a nutrition consult with a gut-health trained Registered Dietitian expert, click here: www.gitrak.com or email email@example.com
Tamar Feldman, RDN CDE is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist and a Certified Diabetes Educator, specializing in nutritional therapy for gut health, autoimmune disease, and hormone balance. She serves as the lead dietitian for GI Trak virtual gut health center and is a wellspring magazine contributor.