Gut Health 101

Health professionals these days are constantly referring to the significance of gut health. Perhaps you have heard reference to intestinal microflora or gut microbiota? Maybe you have wondered what various health companies are talking about when they say that their products will help improve the bacteria in your gut? Well it is all referring to one overall idea: the gut microbiome.

Sure, you probably knew that. But do you know exactly what that means? Let’s break it down so we can crack open the basics of it. 

What exactly is the gut microbiome?  It is the ecosystem that is thriving within your digestive tract. It may be hard to conceptualize, but right at this very moment, there are trillions of bacteria in your gut. In fact, there are over one thousand species of bacteria living in your digestive organs. Try to really picture that for a second. Consider how many species of animals you can name off the top of your head: horses, dogs, frogs, and butterflies. Now image one THOUSAND of those species. That is the number of different species currently carrying on life in your abdomen. There is so much bacteria in your gut that it equals about three full pounds all on its own. The bacterial DNA in your gut outnumbers your own DNA by 100 times. Let that sink in. You have about 20,000 genes, but there are two millionor more bacterial genes. Put another way, you have more bacteria in your gut than you have cells in your body. That means, technically, you are more bacteria than human.  

So, why are all of these bacteria that live in our gut so important? Well, we have been taught that bacteria are pathogenic, or disease causing. This can be true, of course. Bacteria can generate harmful diseases like salmonella, noro virus, E. coli, and many more. But not all bacteria are bad. The good bacteria living inside of you can also promote healing, and, ultimately, life.  The gut microbiome, full of healthy bacteria, has an anti-inflammatory affect. So, people with lots of unhealthy bacteria or not enough good bacteria are much more likely to have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and other forms of inflammation in their gut.  

Aside from combating inflammation, your gut (when healthy) has many more beneficial characteristics. It produces vitamins, regulated hormones, excretes toxins and digests food. Intestinal microflora is a big part of that. The bacterial organisms actually work to ferment the indigestible molecules in your body. The good bacteria in your gut can be credited with digesting 10% of all of your calories. But the bacteria in your gut must be in balance in order for you to remain healthy.

What causes the gut microbiome to become unbalanced and/or damaged?

The Standard American Diet (SAD) is one of the main factors to be blamed. Americans are eating too much food, yet we not getting enough nutrients. There are numerous nutritional deficiencies that can negatively impact the gut microbiota (like magnesium, for example).

Sugar is another culprit that is way too prevalent in the SAD. It is a potent neurotoxin, which makes it poisonous to our bodies and brains. It creates inflammation and insulin-resistance. The absolute worst kind of sugar for the gut microbiome is fructose. It is often used in different foods because it is sweeter than glucose, but it has seriously damaging effects. It makes us more insulin-resistant, goes straight to the liver and starts turning into fat, and it also makes the gut more permeable.

Processed foods can also harm the delicate gut microflora. Substances like artificial sweeteners and preservative chemicals can really do a number on the gut as well.

Antibiotic use is one of the main causes of damaged microbiota since it kills bad andgood bacteria. Even if you are careful not to overdo it with antibiotics when doctors prescribe them to you for an illness, it does not mean you are out of the woods in terms of ingesting too many antibiotics since there are excessive antibiotics used in the U.S. meat industry. Because animals are kept in such cramped conditions, it creates a breeding ground for bacteria. In order to keep bacterial outbreaks under control, farmers add antibiotics to the food that farmed animals eat. That is one of the many reasons why it is essential to cut back on meat and only buy antibiotic-free meat whenever possible. 

There’s more to it than you may think...the effects of the bacteria in your gut go way beyond the digestive system. There has always been a connection between the gut and the brain. Just think about the fact that so many people experience digestive issues when they are stressed out. Scientists are now referring to the gut as the “second brain.” Neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA that were once thought to be solely made in the brain were recently found to be produced in the gut. In fact, it is estimated that around 90% of serotonin is made in the digestive tract. Messenger molecules are also sending direct signals to the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal Axis in the brain, so this is a complex interconnection of bacteria and brain cells. Since some of the neurotransmitters that are made in the gut, like serotonin, play a role in us feeling more peaceful and relaxed, it is no wonder that a damaged gut microbiome can lead to issues such as anxiety and depression. Anxiety is an expression of stress; it can be viewed as a symptom. Anxiety and depression can be thought of as an alert mechanism, so when you feel anxiety or depression creeping in, your body and brain together are telling you that something is wrong. This could easily mean that your intestinal microflora are sending help signals that they are off balance. 

It is essential that everyone take care of their gut microflora, whether or not they experience symptoms of anxiety or depression.

What steps can you take to keep your gut microbiome healthy? I recommend taking high quality prebiotics and probiotics loaded with healthy bacteria every day. One of my favorites is a prebiotic/probiotic mix called Seed. It only contains naturally occurring, human-strain microbes that are already present in our bodies.

It is also imperative that we increase our nutrient intake by eating more organic vegetables and fruits. Eating fermented foods like natto, kefir, tempeh, miso and kimchi is another sure way to increase the good bacteria in the gut. As I mentioned before, limit your meat intake, and only buy antibiotic-free meat. Finally, do what you can to eliminate stress from your life and develop a regular sleep schedule. It will do wonders to help the bacteria working so hard to keep your body and brain healthy. 

Elissa Goodman Holistic Healing