Improved Gut Health: A step towards perfect health
“All disease begins in the gut.”
Hippocrates emphasized on gut health more than 2,000 years ago, but it is only recently that we are coming to understand just how right he was. Research over the past two decades has revealed that gut health is critical to overall health and that an unhealthy gut contributes to a wide range of diseases including diabetes, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, autism spectrum disorder, depression, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
In fact, many researchers believe that supporting intestinal health and restoring the integrity of the gut barrier will be one of the most important steps towards healing and healthy living. There are two closely related variables that determine our gut health: the intestinal microbiota or “gut flora”, and the gut barrier.
“Heal the gut and you heal yourself.”
– Gerard E. Mullin, MD
The gut flora
Our gut is home to approximately 100 trillion microorganisms. The human gut contains 10 times more bacteria than all the human cells in the entire body. In fact, you could say that we’re more bacterial than we are human. Think about that for a minute!
We’ve only recently begun to understand the extent of the gut flora’s role in human health and disease. Among other things, the gut flora promotes normal gastrointestinal function, provides protection from infection, regulates metabolism and comprises more than 75% of our immune system. Any imbalance in the gut flora has been linked to diseases ranging from Autism and Depression to autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s, Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Type 1 Diabetes.
Unfortunately, several features of the modern lifestyle directly contribute to unhealthy gut flora:
Change in Dietary Habits
In the 21st century, the definition of food has changed and so has our gut health. In today’s generation, processed, produced and packaged food is an integral part of our life. However, these were alien to us some 20-30 years back.
I once asked a kid to name a whole grain food and his reply was whole grain bread. Remember, whole grain bread irrespective of whether it has grain, germ or husk is different. Processed food does not contain any major nutrients and it increases your blood sugar and impacts the digestion process. If we continue to eat foods with a high glycemic load, it will impact our gut health. Always remember: gut health affects your whole body. The solution to this is:
- Maximize whole plant-based foods, complex carbohydrates, and balance proteins
- Minimize processed food (anything that’s manufactured).
- Prioritize variety and go as local and regional as possible.
Rampant Use of Antibiotics
Antibiotics are particularly harmful to the gut flora. Recent studies have shown that antibiotic use causes a profound and rapid loss of diversity and a shift in the composition of gut flora. Antibiotic use without intervention affects this diversity.
Antibiotics are given rampantly to kids without adding probiotics. They are given to animals to keep them healthy and even fed to plants to increase their production capacity. Additionally, we flush antibiotics in water which ultimately reaches the groundwater table and comes back in circulation.
According to a study conducted in the U.S., 70% to 80% of produced antibiotics are for fruits, vegetables and animal breeding and only 20% to 30% is for direct human consumption. So, you should
- Maximize the consumption of organic foods, which are free of antibiotics.
- Minimize consumption of animal protein. You should consume animal protein occasionally and not adopt it as a way of life.
- Prioritize organic, natural, antibiotic free and free-range products as much as possible.
Use antibiotics only if it is a must – Ask your doctor if antibiotics are a must for a particular disease or infection and add probiotics to your diet simultaneously.
Weak Gut microbiota passed during birth and drop in breastfeeding duration
A lot has changed in the last decade or so. During a natural (vaginal) childbirth when the baby moves through the birth canal, acquiring most of the gut microbiota from the mother during this time. This forms the baby’s immune system. Although we have microbes in all our surroundings, before birth, the child body is sterile.
Nowadays “C-section births” are popular both for the convenience of customers and hospitals. Infants that aren’t breastfed and are born to mothers with unhealthy and imbalanced gut flora are more likely to develop unhealthy gut bacteria. These early disturbances in gut flora may lead to Obesity, Diabetes, Eczema, Psoriasis, Depression and other health problems in the future.
Breastfeeding is also needed for growth. The gut microbiota of infants is in a developing stage and breastfeeding promotes the growth of good gut microbes.
Earlier kids were breastfed up to two years and then weaned down. However, today mothers breastfeed their kids for just six months and then weaned down to a bottle. If we want our next generation to be healthy, breastfeeding, for as long as possible will go a long way.
- Maximize breastfeeding duration and natural birth.
- Minimize C section births for convenience unless it’s medically critical; medical fraternity needs to support this.
- Prioritize mother’s milk over formula. If formula milk can be avoided altogether, it would be ideal.
Yes, stress is for real! Stress impacts our gut health. We all live in highly stressful environments due to multiple reasons. However, if we do not manage our stress well, then the body will always be in a Fight or Flight mode. Food will then not be absorbed and good gut microbes would not grow. Identifying trigger factors for stress should be a priority. You should try to maximize ways to control stress through meditation, yoga, deep breathing, hobbies and minimizing stress triggers.
10 Brainy Facts About Gut: by Jordan Rosenfeld
– The gut is the only organ that can perform its functions without the oversight of brain
– There are over 100 million brain cells in your gut
– The gut has its own nervous system
– The gut sends emotional signals to the brain—suggesting we “feel” with our guts first
– GI conditions can be seen as the “mental illness” of your gut
– A strong gut may protect your bones
– New research shows links between Autism and fewer strains of gut bacteria
– Food affects your mood, and not just “comfort food”
– Your gut is your best friend in cold and flu season
– Your gut can become addicted to opiates, just like your brain
The gut barrier
The gut is a hollow tube that passes from the mouth to the anus. Anything that goes in the mouth and remains undigested will pass out right through the other end. This is, in fact, one of the most important functions of the gut: to prevent foreign substances from entering the body. When this barrier becomes permeable (i.e. “leaky gut syndrome”), large protein molecules escape into the bloodstream. Since these proteins don’t belong outside the gut, the body mounts an immune response and attacks them.
“There is growing evidence that increased intestinal permeability plays a pathogenic role in various autoimmune diseases including [celiac disease] and [type 1 diabetes]….once the autoimmune process is activated, it is not auto-perpetuating, but rather can be modulated or even reversed by preventing the continuous interplay between genes and environment….new therapeutic strategies aimed at re-establishing the intestinal barrier function offer innovative, unexplored approaches for the treatment of these devastating diseases”1
Here’s the takeaway. Leaky gut and bad gut flora are common because of the modern lifestyle. If you have a leaky gut, you probably have bad gut flora and vice versa. Period.
A strong gut depends on:
- a balanced intestinal flora (our gut contains about 3-4 pounds of bacteria)
- an intact mucosa (our gut lining replaces itself every 3-7 days) and
- a healthy immune system (almost 70% of our immune system cells live in or around the gut).
To adequately address these conditions, you must rebuild your gut flora and restore the integrity of your intestinal barrier. This is especially true if you have any kind of autoimmune disease, whether you experience digestive issues or not. Know more about the importance of gut here!
How to maintain and restore gut flora?
The most obvious first step in maintaining gut flora is to avoid all of the things I’ve listed above that destroys and damages the intestinal barrier. But of course, that’s not always possible, especially in the case of chronic stress and infections. We do not have any control over whether we are breastfed or whether our mothers have healthy guts when they give birth to us.
If you’ve been exposed to some of these factors, there are still steps you can take to restore your gut flora:
- Remove all food toxins from your diet
- Eat plenty of fermentable fibers
- Eat fermented foods
- Treat any intestinal pathogens (such as parasites) that may be present
- Take steps to manage your stress
Being healthy is possible!
How do you plan to stay healthy and have a healthy intestinal microbiome? What are the key elements in your daily routine that you will Maximize, Minimize and Prioritize to help your gut and in turn your overall health? Share in the comments and inspire others!