When you sit down to eat a meal, you may think you are only nourishing yourself. Guess again! Within your body, a vast microscopic ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses inhabit your gut. Collectively, these microorganisms and their genes make up your microbiome. With over 100 trillion microbes and a thousand different species, many of my clients are surprised to learn that their guts contain more bacterial genes than human genes. This means that you are a superorganism! In fact, your unique microbiome consists of millions of genes that encode proteins that influence many bodily functions, including digestion, immunity, hormone balance, vitamin production, and detoxification.
You’ve probably heard me say it before, and I will say it again – your gut health is the cornerstone of health and wellness. Most of the microbes in your gut are symbiotic, which means they are beneficial. On the other hand, a small portion of microbes are pathogenic and can cause disease. However, in a relatively healthy individual, the symbiotic and pathogenic microbes live amongst each other in harmony. It is when there is persistent imbalance and loss of diversity that the risk of developing various chronic diseases increases. Therefore, cultivating a diverse and balanced gut microbiota is key.
To truly understand why the gut microbiome is vital for your health, keep reading to discover how an imbalanced gut is linked to disease.
The Link between Gut Health and Disease
What you put on your plate, the environment you live in, your lifestyle choices, exposure to infectious diseases, frequent antibiotic use, and other medications all play a role in the balance or imbalance of your gut microbiome. I often tell my new clients that the link between gut health and chronic disease is none other than chronic inflammation.
To grasp how inflammation arises in the gut, visualize your gastrointestinal tract (GI) as one large tunnel that travels through the length of your upper body. The walls of this tunnel are made up of a tissue called the epithelium. The epithelium is covered with a magnificent blanket of carbohydrate-rich mucus that functions as a barrier to keep your microbes from entering your bloodstream. This means that the mucus in your intestines is the primary substance separating you from the trillions of microbes in your gut!
Maintaining the integrity of your intestinal mucus layer is essential. Typically, the microbes in your GI tract enjoy munching on the dietary fiber you consume. Microbes can break down these complex fibers and utilize the compounds to make short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that protect your gut barrier and reduce inflammation. However, when you consume a Standard American Diet devoid of dietary fiber, the microbes in your gut adapt to consuming your mucus layer to survive. Yep, you read that right. Your microbes begin to eat away at the protective mucus in your gut and cause the lining to thin. In turn, studies have shown that a thin mucus layer allows microbes to move closer to your cells, which eventually causes the release of inflammatory markers associated with chronic disease development.
How an Imbalanced Gut Affects Your Health
Now that you understand the link between gut inflammation and disease, it’s time to shift your perspective away from the microscopic view of the gut microbiome to the larger systems of the body. You will find that imbalances within your gut microbial community are associated with the following illnesses and conditions:
- Cancer: Your unique microbiome is filled with millions of genes that have an impact on not only the promotion of inflammation but also the potential growth of tumor cells. Research has shown that several pathogens – especially viruses – promote the growth of tumor cells by damaging the epithelium within your GI tract. When I was diagnosed with cancer in my thirties, one of the first steps I took to heal was to rebalance my gut microbiome.
- Obesity: The diversity of your gut bacteria plays a vital role in your susceptibility to obesity. It’s been revealed that individuals who struggle with obesity have less bacterial diversity than those who are leaner. In addition, obese individuals have a higher abundance of obesity-associated Firmicutes bacteria and lower amounts of Bacteroidetes than individuals who are not obese.
- Cardiovascular Disease: Imbalances in your gut can also affect your heart. The gut microbiota can transform dietary nutrients such as choline, L-carnitine, and phosphatidylcholine found in animal foods into a compound known as TMAO. High levels of TMAO have been associated with an increased risk of clogged arteries, heart attack, and stroke.
- Autoimmune Diseases: Conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, type 1 diabetes, and Hashimoto disease all have one thing in common – they have been associated with Leaky Gut syndrome. Leaky Gut syndrome occurs when the lining of your GI tract becomes damaged, and gaps begin to form, allowing toxins and microbes to enter your bloodstream. Therefore, gut imbalances can increase the risk of developing autoimmune diseases that cause the immune system to attack healthy tissues.
- Osteoarthritis and Joint Pain: Aging is not the only thing that impacts joint health. Your gut health also plays a significant role in keeping joint pain at bay. Specific microbes in the gut can release pro-inflammatory compounds that increase joint damage and the severity of osteoarthritis.
- Food Allergies and Asthma: Your gut microbiome transforms throughout your lifespan. However, the first few months of life are critical for colonizing the gut and developing the immune system. Food allergies may develop if early colonization includes harmful bacteria such as C. difficule or S. aureus. In the GI tracts of infants without allergies, beneficial bacteria such as Bifidobacteria are present. Infants who do not live in environments with increased microbe exposure are more likely to develop asthma and allergies.
- Infertility: Men and women who struggle with infertility have been found to experience gut imbalance. In women, alterations in the gut lead to issues like imbalanced sex hormones, endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, and pregnancy complication. For men, certain bacterial infections can reduce sperm motility and concentration.
- Brain, Mood, and Learning Disorders: Have you heard about the gut-brain axis? Exciting research has found that bidirectional communication occurs between your gut bacteria and brain cells. Your microbial makeup is an important determining factor in the potential development of cognitive decline, anxiety, depression, autism, and ADHD. In fact, poor gut health increases your chances of brain and psychological dysfunction.
Restoring Balance in Your Gut
At this point, you may be wondering what you can do to balance your gut in order to help prevent these diseases. Thankfully, there are several ways you can improve your gut microbiome and regain your health. The first thing I recommend is to consume prebiotic-rich foods such as bananas, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, and oatmeal, as they feed the good bacteria in your gut. Fermented probiotic-rich foods, such as kefir, sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, yogurt, and natto, are also beneficial because they can lower inflammation and increase your microbial diversity. Limiting refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers, and gums is also imperative to protect your mucus lining. Quality sleep, exercise, and stress reduction also play pivotal roles in preventing damage to your intestinal lining. Perhaps the most important recommendations are to consume adequate dietary fiber and a diverse array of plant foods. As mentioned above, your beneficial microbes need the dietary fiber present in plants to flourish!
Speaking of adequate dietary fiber, the Gut Cleanse version of my delivered S.O.U.P. cleanse contains ample amounts of fiber, probiotics, and prebiotics. Whether you are struggling with gut imbalance or chronic disease, I invite you to sign up for the Gut Cleanse, as this powerful whole-food cleanse was created to help restore balance and harmony in your gut microbiome.