January 10th, 2012 by Digestive Detective
No, this isn't a blog about bacteria that get drunk on spring break. The focus of this article is on the role of microorganisms in our gut and the health consequences that can occur when those microorganisms get out of balance.
Our gut is a complex internal organ containing a rich environment of microflora - small organisms that serve a purpose including a role in the modulation our immune systems and metabolism, among other jobs. As with any environment, things work best in our gut when there is a state of balance or homeostasis.
Just to give you a sense of how influential this gut microflora is, consider these statistics courtesy of integrative health practitioner Chris Kresser:
- "Our gut is home to approximately 100,000,000,000,000 (100 trillion) microorganisms. That’s such a big number our human brains can’t really comprehend it. One trillion dollar bills laid end-to-end would stretch from the earth to the sun – and back – with a lot of miles to spare. Do that 100 times and you start to get at least a vague idea of how much 100 trillion is."
- "The human gut contains 10 times more bacteria than all the human cells in the entire body, with over 400 known diverse bacterial species. In fact, you could say that we’re more bacterial than we are human. Think about that one for a minute."
By this point most people have heard of probiotics and at some point have been on antibiotics. When you get a bacterial infection, you may be prescribed an antibiotic. Typically broad-spectrum in nature, an antibiotic serves to destroy bacteria; however these antibiotics are not heat-seeking missiles that only kill the bad or infectious bacteria -- they're more like atomic bombs that also destroy the good bacteria necessary in the body and the gut for optimal digestive function and overall health. Over time, long-term, repetitive antibiotic use leads to less friendly bacteria and that leaves the door wide open for harmful bacteria to proliferate along with other microorganisms such as parasites and fungi. If your gut is compromised by other factors (poor diet, stress, etc.) then the balance of the internal environment becomes thrown out of whack and gut dysbiosis occurs.
Gut dysbiosis is the loss of balance in the microflora and signals that the gut and host (individual) is in a weakened state (ie poor gut health & function). Dysbiosis results in the presence of microorganisms that are not normally present as well as the presence of microorganisms that are normally present but usually in lower/higher concentrations. In this state, our bodies can suffer severe consequences including:
- Adverse alterations in gut pH and food break down ability
- Retention of other organisms that are normally rapidly expelled
- Disruption of intestinal mucosal barrier function
- Toxic condition from the metabolic products of the invader
- Maldigestion and malabsorption of nutrients
As a result of these consequences, you may experience symptoms such as indigestion/heartburn/GERD, irritable bowel, vitamin deficiencies, brain/mood dysfunction, autoimmune skin conditions (psoriasis, acne), thyroid and metabolic dysregulation, leaky gut and many others. Intestinal health is a prerequisite for most body physiology. On a cellular level, our bodies operate based upon the nutrients we provide - if the system that delivers those nutrients to the cells of our bodies is dysfunctional, then you can understand how many conditions may occur as a result of poor gut health.
Balancing You Gut
Testing for the mucosal gut barrier is the ideal and fool-proof way to determine if you have gut dysbiosis. You can begin to take steps today that can improve your gut health and ensure better balance of your microflora by taking the following into consideration:
- DO NOT OVERUSE ANTIBIOTICS. Inappropriate antibiotic use damages the balance of gut microflora and can in the long run make you more susceptible to infection. Keep in mind that the gut is where Secretory IgA, the most abundant immunoglobulin, is produced. The more the gut becomes compromised, the less efficient it is in manufacturing the immune-enhancing factors and the less capable it will become in warding off foreign invaders.
- EAT ORGANIC. Nutrition is a pillar of health and conventional foods, particularly meats, fish and poultry, are treated with antibiotics to keep the animals from getting ill so they can make it to market. Those antibiotics get passed down the food chain to us when we consume the foods. Look for wild-caught fish, grassfed beef, and organic poultry that have not been administered antibiotics. Also, when possible, purchase organic fruits & vegetables that are void of pesticides and chemicals that can damage the gut lining.
- ENJOY CULTURED FOODS. Cultured foods such as fermented vegetables and organic, cultured dairy contain probiotics. In addition, these foods often contain enzymes that are beneficial to overall digestion.
- SUPPLEMENT WITH PROBIOTICS. If you're not a big fan of fermented sauerkraut (although trust me, it's delicious!) then you can get you probiotics in supplement form. Quality matters, so look for a product with multi-strain bacterium (several different types of probiotics in each dose) with a goal of 15+ billion microorganisms per capsule.