All disease begins in the gut. Although this saying is over 2000 years old, we’re only now beginning to grasp the depth of Hippocrates’ affirmation. Recent research has proven that the state of your gastrointestinal system is a decisive factor in your overall well-being. In charge of several critical immune and digestive functions, the beneficial bacteria in your gut are responsible for nutrient absorption, hormonal regulation, toxins elimination, as well as vitamin production in the body. What’s even more intriguing are the new studies showing correlations between gut flora and mental health. Believe it or not, both physical and mental wellness is greatly influenced by what goes on in your stomach.
We’re taught from a young age to always wash our hands “to get rid of nasty bacteria and dirt”. While there’s nothing wrong with proper sanitation, we grow up believing that bacteria are harmful, contaminated things and that we should go above and beyond to kill them off. What we’re not told by the adults around us is that not all bacteria is pernicious to the human body and, in fact, certain types of these microorganisms are not only completely innocuous, but even essential for us to be healthy and thrive in our day-to-day lives.
They contribute to the absorption of vitamins and minerals, trigger immune responses and help balance out our hormones. Moreover, this aversion towards bacteria isn’t in accordance with well-known scientific facts – since our bodies are home for approximately 100 trillion bacteria. What’s more, we’re actually more bacterial than we are “human”. Did you know that these microorganisms outnumber human cells by tenfold in most people? It’s no wonder that our immune systems are so dependent on the quality and quantity of gut bacteria.
Only recently have scientists discovered the extent of the gut’s role in human disease and health. Research indicates that environmental factors play a role in developing a healthy immune system. For instance, pregnant women who are exposed to pets and farm areas are less probable to give birth to children who develop allergies later in life. Likewise, kids who have been raised in overly hygienic or sterile locations are prone to developing weaker immune systems.
This happens because, in an antiseptic environment, there are no pathogens to challenge the antibodies and train a proper immune response that can be later used to fight off infections. Even in the animal kingdom, mammals that are raised germ-free do not form a gut flora and, consequently, develop abnormal intestines. Scientists are only now starting to pick up on the impending need for good bacteria in the body and the long-lasting impact that our infancy surroundings have on our health later in life.
Gastrointestinal imbalances are not only the root cause for certain digestive issues, but can also affect brain and mental health. New evidence has come to light that an unhealthy gut flora can lead to unwanted changes in the body, from mood swings and depression to memory loss and lack of concentration. The Enteric Nervous System, also known as ENS, represents the total of up to 100 million nerve cells that form the lining of the intestinal tract.
The main role of this part of the nervous system is to manage digestion, but it’s also responsible for communicating with the brain, signaling potential damage to the body’s gut. Individuals suffering from gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome or Celiac disease are more susceptible to autoimmune diseases and mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. This might have to do with the fact that 90% of serotonin, the “feel good” chemical our body releases when we feel happy, is generated in the digestive tract.
New studies also suggest that digestive function can affect certain cognitive functions, having been linked to memory problems and early Parkinson’s disease.
Obesity has become a widespread issue in the past few decades, leading to thousands of deaths every year due to high blood pressure, stroke, type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. In the United States alone, 1 in 4 deaths are caused by cardiovascular disease and over 700000 Americans suffer a heart attack every year. Although obesity is one of the major risk factors of dying from heart failure, the issue has yet to be addressed in all conscience.
Given the severity of this illness, childish tropes like “Calories in, calories out” are not only inaccurate, but simply add blame and hint at the person’s inability to control his or her urges and not overeat. While there is some truth to this saying, as your weight is, to some extent, determined by your energy intake and expenditure, it does not take into account that calories are not all the same and macronutrient ratio (protein-fat-carbohydrate) also plays an essential role in losing weight.
Moreover, there are several other factors that contribute to weight gain, some of which are not necessarily dependent exclusively on diet. For instance, new research suggests that people who struggle with being overweight have lower diversity when it comes to their gut bacteria.
The collection of microbes in our bodies, also known as the microbiome, are responsible with several functions required in order for us to be healthy and thrive. However, quantity does not necessarily equal quality. When it comes to gastrointestinal health, having a high number of microbes is not axiomatically better. In fact, our gut flora has to have more variety when it comes to species, not numbers.
This is due to the fact that each species of bacteria has its own particular role in metabolizing nutrients. It has been found that obese people have fewer species (a lower diversity) of bacteria in their gut, which might account for their slower metabolism. Furthermore, certain diets, in particular high-fat diets, can negatively impact the ratio of gut microbes. A balanced diet, rich in fresh fruit and vegetables and with a lower percentage of calories coming from fat can help replenish the gut flora and create more diversity in the microbiome.
Leaky gut is medically known as intestinal permeability and can stand behind many skin problems, heart conditions and autoimmune diseases. In a nutshell, this disorder means that your intestinal wall becomes inflamed and eventually ruptures in certain areas. These tiny cracks then allow undigested food particles and toxic substances to pass through and reach the bloodstream, causing a host of nasty side effects and illnesses.
In order to prevent this, you should make sure your diet is clear of any processed, pre-packaged foods, filled with preservatives and artificial sweeteners. In addition, you should eat a nutrient-rich diet, predominant in organic, whole fruits and vegetables that can aid in healing your intestinal walls and restoring good bacteria in the gut.
There are several other disorders that can occur as a result of poor diet and lifestyle choices. Asthma, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and colorectal cancer have all been linked to leaky gut and intestinal inflammation. Humans show significant differences in the composition of their gut bacteria, as each individual inherits distinct genetics, has a different age and adheres to a particular diet.
Recent studies have looked into the role that bacteria play in gut health and have found that the microbes in your intestines have anti-inflammatory properties and can help combat infections. This means that you can prevent gastrointestinal diseases by promoting microbiome diversity in the gut through adopting a whole foods, low-sugar diet.
One of the most poignant elements that can lead to gut problems is a high-stress, anxious lifestyle. If you’re working two jobs at a time, spend most of your day in an office, hyped up on caffeine or have to deal with high-strung people and distressing situations throughout the day, you’re putting a massive strain not only on your emotional state, but also on your physical wellbeing. Moreover, having to spend a lot of your time working a stressful job doesn’t offer you that many options in terms of food.
So your diet probably consists of mainly bagels, coffee and pre-packaged sandwiches. This is the perfect storm for your already damage-predisposed gut, as diets high in refined carbohydrates, sugars or processed foods are crucial factors in developing leaky gut. While we’re still on the topic of diet, you should also know that a lack of fermentable fibers, as well as the excessive consumption of dietary toxins like wheat (this means most breads, pretzels, pies and doughnuts) and industrial seed oils (sunflower, canola, corn, safflower, soybean, sesame oils) have a severe negative impact on your gut health. However, chronic stress and a poor diet, whilst very important to avoid, are not the only factors that can contribute to gastrointestinal diseases.
Chronic infections are also a sign that something’s not going quite right with your immune system. A bacterial or a viral infection of the digestive tract can trigger an immune response, causing the intestinal wall to become inflamed in an attempt to fight off the pathogen. In healthy people, when the infection is gone, the inflammation disappears as well. However, in people suffering from gut problems, the digestive tract inflammation persists after the bacteria or viruses have been killed off or it occurs even when there is no infection to neutralize.
Have you ever taken an over-the-counter drug for a nasty headache that just wouldn’t go away? Do you pop regular drug store pills easily when you’re dealing with recurrent pain? Are you on the contraceptive pill? Have you had several courses of antibiotic treatment since you were little? If you answered yes to most of these questions, you should re-evaluate the way you treat common colds and pain. While it might be convenient in the moment to take a pill for quick pain relief, NSAIDs are one of the highest risk factors for killing off good bacteria in your body and, consequently, developing gastrointestinal illnesses.
Contraceptives are right up there on the list, messing up the natural rhythm and dose of hormones your body produces. Lastly, you should watch out for antibiotics – as overusing them has been linked to issues that go far beyond an unhealthy gut. Moreover, there are several cases in which these pills are misused, prescribed as treatment for the common cold, despite the fact that they are completely ineffective in fighting off viruses. Whether it’s you that’s paying the doctor a visit or your child, you should always request other treatment options from your physician and only take antibiotics for bacterial infections.
If taking them is the only choice, then make sure you don’t miss on any doses and try to keep your diet as clean as possible during treatment, to not further aggravate any potential sensibilities your gut has.