What’s happening in your gut affects the overall health of your whole body. Why is that? How can the bacteria living in your intestine possibly make a difference to the health of other parts of the body? Even your immunity and mental health are impacted by you microbiome and this article gives an overview, explaining the reasons for this in simple terms. It also includes tips on how to encourage good bacteria to flourish in your gut.
What is the gut microbiome?
If you thought you were digesting food all by yourself, think again – most of it is done for you by bacteria living inside your intestines. We are born without any bacteria whatsover, meaning whichever bacteria we’re exposed to as newborns colonises the gut, and henceforth our microbiome starts to grow. Vaginal births and breastfeeding get us off to a good start, because they expose babies to good bacteria, which multiply in the gut leaving less room for bad bacteria. This balance between good and bad bacteria can shift through our lives, with consequences for our immune system and overall health which are only now beginning to be understood.
How does it affect the rest of the body?
There is a long and growing list of health issues which seem to correlate with the health of the microbiome. Most of the following findings come from a brilliant website called futurity, on which scientists from universities all over the world explain their research results for a lay audience.
- Depression: your gut needs bacteria to make more serotonin
- Weight gain: we all burn calories while we sleep – but those of us with a healthy microbiome may burn more. Meanwhile, use of antibiotics is associated with weight gain.
- Parkinsons: the composition of gut bacterial populations actively contribute to the deterioration of motor skills that is the hallmark of this disease.
- Immunity: beneficial gut bacteria can offer protection from infections such as clostridium difficile
- Imbalances in gut bacteria may play a role in diabetes.
- Osteoporosis: Treatment with probiotics has been shown to improve bone mass in rodent models of bone loss.
Isn’t it good to be clean?
Not necessarily. It turns out that kids on farms have fewer allergies, and kids who own dogs get less asthma. Why? Scientists are calling it The Old Friends Mechanism, because the microbes which we evolved with are like old friends. Without exposure to them in early life, our immune system doesn’t learn to regulate itself. It used to be called the hygiene hypothesis, but that term has fallen out of favour because it implies that we shouldn’t clean. ‘Targeted hygiene’ is the aim, and that DOESN’T mean blitzing every available surface with anti-bacterial sprays. Click here if you want to read a science paper which explains the rise of allergies in the 20th century.
How can you improve your microbiome?
Anti-biotics decimate your gut flora, so much so that some scientists are beginning to say we should only take them if our life hangs in the balance. To find out which other medicines to avoid, click here.
Probiotics and prebiotics: what’s the difference?
Don’t confuse probiotics with prebiotics: both of them are crucial for your gut health, but they’re not the same.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that have health benefits when consumed. They are available as supplements, or they occur naturally in a small number of foods, such as certain yogurts and fermented food such as sauerkraut (read my easy-peasy sauerkraut recipe here.) For a full list of probiotic foods click here.
We sell pro-biotic supplements in our chiropractic clinic. I used to think that taking them would ‘seed’ your gut and those good little bacteria would prosper and grow inside of you, but sadly it turns out that without the appropriate food, probiotics will not proliferate. If your diet remains unhealthy the same old bad bacteria will keep crowding out the good ones – any probiotics you consume will only colonise your gut if you feed them prebiotic food. Worse still, unfed probiotics may even turn on their host, eating the mucus which protects the gut wall, as this study found.
There are lots of lovely prebiotic foods, but predictably burgers do not appear on the list. Prebiotics are foods which are resistant to stomach acid and other digestive processes so they can make it to your intestines. All fiber rich food is loved by bacteria, but prebiotic foods are special – the good bacteria eat them but the bad ones don’t. For a full list click here. For some recipe ideas, check out my blog – Caramelised leek and New Potato Salad and Tahini Lentils both contain prebiotic ingredients.
So vital are probiotics that people have undertaken some pretty unsavory ways of acquiring them. Click here to find out about vaginal seeding for babies born by C section, and here to read all about faecal transplants. Yes, I did say faecal.
If that is a step too far, I recommend you read this web page, which outlines 12 evidence based suggestions. They include getting a dog, spending time in nature, and cuddling healthy people – proving that a healthy microbiome might not be so onerous to come by after all.