Hippocrates said it best: “ All disease begins in the gut.” The gateway to thriving health is through a properly functioning digestive tract. This is why gut wellness is the top priority of many practitioners in the world of clinical nutrition. The digestive tract is roughly 9 metres long: it starts in the mouth and ends at the anus. Worldwide, millions of people suffer from some form of digestive upset somewhere along this tract, whether it is acid reflux, stomach ulcers, abdominal cramps or constipation. In the Australian Burden Of Disease Study, it is estimated that 70,000 people are living with inflammatory bowel disease and 1 in 10 people suffer from symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. According to the Gut Foundation Research Institute, more than 15000 people were diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2012, making it the second most common cause of cancer-related death in Australia. In this article, I will discuss how pre- and probiotics play a significant role in keeping our intestines working properly.
What Is The Gut Microbiome?
Previous estimates stated that the ratio of human to bacterial cells in our body was about 10 trillion to 100 trillion respectively. However, with scientific advancements, more accurate measurements now suggest that the average human male is made up of about 30 trillion cells and about 40 trillion bacteria live in his digestive tract. Excuse the pun, but does that fact bug you? Well, it shouldn’t -- as long as the good and bad microbes are living in harmony and balanced in the right quantities.
When I talk about the microbes present in the body, it's important to understand that there are many different types. The bacteria that we find in the gut may be transient (just passing through via what we eat) or colonising (like a seed that plants itself in the gut, it lives and multiplies there permanently in varying quantities). The bacteria may also be friendly or pathogenic. Examples of good bacteria are Lactobacillus, Bacteroides and Bifidobacterium, while E.coli would be an example of one we do not wish to have a lot of. The reason your immune system doesn’t get rid of all these foreign bacteria is because the friendly ones actually help our body function. Friendly bacteria help in digestion of food, absorption of vitamins and maintaining the integrity of the intestinal lining. Aside from bacteria, the gut microbiome may also consist of fungi like Candida or Saccharomyces and parasites like Entamoeba. It's a truly diverse ecosystem.
Unfortunately, an imbalance in the gut microbiome, a condition known as dysbiosis, is pretty common in today’s society. Dysbiosis describes the state in which there is either quantitative changes in the good and bad microbes, changes in their metabolic activity or a change in their distribution in the body. This can arise from:
Although the dysbiosis starts in the gut, an imbalanced microbiome leads to much more than just digestive issues. Some common symptoms include:
Because the effects of dysbiosis can be seen in so many different systems of the body, it would not be surprising if one or more of the symptoms listed above sound familiar to you. As the number of clinical studies that link dysbiosis to different diseases grows, it is impossible to estimate the number of people around the world who could be affected. However, with the causes of dysbiosis all around us, it’s probably not a question of whether someone is affected or not, but rather, to what degree.
The common pathway of how dysbiosis leads to disease is through increasing inflammation throughout the body. Our intestinal lining has tiny holes, called tight junctions, that allow it to filter and only absorb the nutrients it requires from our food. The rest of the toxins and waste stay in the intestine and pass out in our stool. When left unchecked, the increased number of bad microbes in the gut are capable of enlarging these holes. This is a condition known as Leaky Gut Syndrome. This means that other larger particles, toxins and sometimes the bacteria themselves, are able to pass out from the intestines and travel into the bloodstream causing damage to other organs.
In addition to irritable bowel disease, celiac disease and life threatening conditions like colon cancer, dysbiosis has also been linked to other non-gastrointestinal disorders like type 2 diabetes, autoimmune and mental health disorders. One study published in 2015 also showed that dysbiosis was linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Since 70% of the blood flow to the liver comes from a vein that is linked to the intestine, this is not surprising. Researchers found that patients with NAFLD had significantly more pro-inflammatory bacteria in their gut. These bacteria produced compounds, known as cytokines IL-6 and TNF-alpha, which caused damage to the liver and potentiate the progression of NAFLD. Studies like this highlight the gut-liver axis and demonstrate the potential for treatments that target the gut microbiome.
Other clinical studies have also showed a correlation between dysbiosis and mental health. There are a few possible pathways that the microbiome could affect the brain and mood including the direct connection between the brain and intestine via the vagus nerve, the availability of nutrients to support brain function from digestion and the production of certain hormones, like serotonin and tryptophan, that occurs in the gut.
How to Help Restore Balance in the Gut:
Probiotics are “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” The most common groups of bacteria in probiotics are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which may be derived from human, dairy or fruit sources depending on the manufacturer. There are multiple different species within these genus that we are starting to associate with specific effects on the human system. A new class of probiotic supplements becoming more common in the market use soil-based organisms or SBOs. These organisms are naturally resistant to stomach acid and do not need a special coating to ensure that enough of the organisms reach the intestine. SBOs can be likened to a seed - protected by a natural shell and thriving in warm, moist environments.
Humans evolved in intimate relationship with the soil, picking up good bacteria as they foraged for food and interacted with the eco-system. SBOs can be found in abundance on un-washed produce grown in a healthy soil. Unfortunately, the overuse of pesticides and fungicides in industrial agriculture has led to soil with an imbalance of micro-organisms, similar to that found in the guts of modern humans. This means that most people are not being exposed to nearly the amount of SBOs that we evolved with. The gold standard for obtaining more SBOs would be activities like gardening, eating unwashed local organic produce grown in healthy soil, barefoot time in nature, and-most importantly-mud wrestling. You can also supplement SBOs with products such as the Prescript-Assist formula, a highly recommended and efficacious probiotic supplement.
Numerous clinical studies have confirmed that probiotics can help to relieve gastrointestinal discomfort, reduce systemic inflammation and deliver many other health benefits like lower cholesterol and weight. The strongest studies support their use in helping to cure infective diarrhea, as well as antibiotic-associated diarrhea. In antibiotic-associated diarrhea, the culprit is normally a bacteria known as Clostridium Difficile. This bacteria surfaces when the good bacteria that normally keep it in check have been wiped out by the antibiotics and causes a debilitating, and possibly fatal, type of bloody diarrhea. In emergency scenarios, fecal transplants through an enema or a colonoscopy have been successful in its treatment. More recently, the use of orally administered frozen encapsulated fecal material is being studied as well. The idea behind fecal transplants and ‘poop pills’ is bacterial interference and involves repopulating the gut with good bacteria. Personally, I believe it sounds a lot like what probiotics do, without the ick factor.
Unpasteurized fermented foods are a good source of probiotics. Examples include:
If you prefer to take it as a supplement, know that not all of the ones on the market are worth your money. This report from Consumer Lab compares 46 different brands of probiotics. Try to find the ones with the most number of different strains of bacteria in them and with a minimum of 10 billion bacterial count. Look for strains such as L. Acidophilus, L. Plantarum L. Rhamnosus, B. Longum, B. Bifidum, B. Infantis, Saccharomyces boullardii and Streptococcus thermophilus. Bear in mind that companies will state the number of live units at the time of manufacture. This number may be a higher concentration that what your body benefits from by the time you buy it. Look for ‘shelf stability’ when deciding which brand to buy to ensure the number of organisms from the time of manufacture until the time it is sold in the shop varies as little as possible. Choose supplements that come in dark-colored bottles which help protect the bacteria from sunlight and heat. Some brands also have a controlled-release delivery system that helps maximise the number of bacteria that reach the colon, instead of dying in the stomach.
Prebiotics: Feeding The Army Of Good Bacteria
Prebiotics and probiotics work together for optimal gut health. Prebiotics are basically a type of indigestible fiber, also known as resistant starch, that we cannot digest and use for ourselves, but the good bacteria can. Inulin, oligosaccharides and fructo-oligosaccharides are included in this group of fiber. There are many foods rich in prebiotics including:
Once ingested, the prebiotics reach the large intestine undigested and are fermented by the microbes. They turn these fibers into a short-chain fatty acid known as butyrate, which has been shown to be anti-inflammatory and can help to prevent cancer growth.
Butyric acid in your colon is one of the by products of fermentation in your gut that is associated with centenarians.
Image source: http://suppversity.blogspot.com/2016/09/new-studies-on-gut-microbiome-and.html
4 Other Simple Steps To Maintaining Gut Health
Some of the commonest foods that cause food sensitivities are wheat and other gluten-containing grains, dairy, eggs, corn, soy and nuts. If you do identify a possible food intolerance, you can try removing it from your diet for at least 2 weeks and see if the symptoms disappear. Removing refined sugars and processed foods from your diet is a quick way to start the process of identifying which foods you are sensitive to.
So, What’s The Take Home Message?
Now that you understand the significance of gut health to your overall wellness, cultivating healthy microflora should be a priority. The bacteria in our gut are living organisms and they are affected by the things we do or consume on a daily basis, just as we are. Things like the food we eat, whether our water contains chlorine, the presence of mercury in dental fillings, breathing in polluted air, exposure to radiation and taking medications are amongst the insults our body has to contend with. To sum up, take care of your bacteria and they will take care of you.
Dr. Denise K. Hee
Mb BCh BAO, MRCS, CHC
Denise is a medical doctor and an intercollegiate member of the Royal College of Surgeons. She works as a health coach certified by the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and focuses on the clinical role of food in preventive medicine. She offers virtual coaching consultations on www.foodiedoc.com and applies nutrigenomics in her practice to identify the best foods for your body according to your DNA.