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The Importance of Healthy Gut Microbiota

 

Many of you may have seen the recent two part series on Catalyst regarding the importance of healthy gut bacteria, also known as gut microbiota or gut microbiome. They were fantastic episodes and relayed a very important health message that was easy to grasp and understand. If you missed these, I encourage you to watch them on iview. It will be worth your time.

This is a topic that I have lectured on extensively during both my trips to the US this year, and one that I am very excited about. Whilst watching Catalyst I was reassured to know that I had captured all the latest research and information for my lectures. At times it felt like they were reading from my lecture notes!

 

Historical Perspective

It would be quite understandable, after watching Catalyst, to be left with the impression that all of this information is new. In actual fact that is not the case. Hipprocrates, who is regarded as the Father of Western Medicine, spoke about the dangers of an unhealthy gut, “Death sits in the bowel” and “A bad digestive system is the root of all health evils”. Hippocrates lived between 460 and 377 years BC. So, you can see humans have known about the influence of the gut on health and disease for a very long time.

What is new is the science that helps us gain an understanding of how and why the gut is so influential on our health. Most importantly modern science is telling what causes altered gut microbiota (dysbiosis) and what we can do about it.

Physicians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries believed that the health of the gut influenced many aspects of health, including mental/emotional health. Modern science now shows us that anxiety and depression can be induced in both animals and humans simply by causing dysbiosis. By the 1930’s, theories about the importance of the gut in health and disease began of lose favour and the medical profession moved on to newer explanations of disease causes, one of which was Freudian psychology.

So, basically we have come full circle. Our forefathers dating back to Hippocrates (and perhaps beyond) understood that a healthy gut is the basis of good health throughout the body.

 

Functions of Gut Microbiota

After spending many hours reading research on this topic I have been left with the belief that there is not a tissue, organ or cell in the human body that is not influenced by the gut microbiota.

The functions performed by the gut microbiota are vast and I suspect, not yet fully understood.  One of the most fascinating and important factors to know is:

“The gut microbiome performs activities that are not encoded in the human genome

In other words the gut microbiome performs functions essential to life, that we are not capable of performing for ourselves. We are absolutely dependent on our gut microbes not only for our health but for our very lives. The term ‘super-organism’ has been used to describe the combination of humans and the microbes that inhabit them. The two are inseparable. It is a truly symbiotic relationship.

 

Major Influences on Gut Microbiota Population

  • Antibiotics. It is common knowledge that antibiotics can cause detrimental changes in gut microbes but there may be a few things that you do not know. We don’t necessarily have to take antibiotics ourselves in order to be exposed to them. Exposure can occur through the food we eat. For example, antibiotics are fed to food animals raised intensively eg in feed lots. Vegetables may also be a source of long-term exposure to low dose antibiotics. Scientists in America have found antibiotics in vegetables grown in manure from animals that had been fed antibiotics.
  • Diet. Diet is considered to be the control switch for the intestinal microbiota, its health and diversity. A diet high in fibre rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and low in refined, fatty, sugary foods will nurture a healthy gut.
  • Infant nutrition. Breast fed infants have healthier gut microbiota than those who are formula fed. Human breast milk contains mediators which modify the pattern of intestinal microbiota.
  • How you are born. Babies born vaginally have a healthier array of gut microbes than those born via caesarian section. During vaginal birth, babies are exposed to their mother’s vaginal and intestinal microbes. It is important for the mother to have a healthy gut microbiota during pregnancy, at birth and during breastfeeding. In one study, when women took probiotics for the last few weeks of pregnancy and for the first 3 months of breast feeding, there were fewer incidences of allergic diseases in the children as they aged.
  • Stress. There is a bi-directional line of communication between the gut and the brain (gut-brain axis). Research has shown that stress alone can cause dysbiosis, which in turn can have a negative impact on emotional health. Basically a vicious cycle is set up.
  • Poor upper digestive function. Inadequate hydrochloric acid in the stomach not only reduces our ability to digest food and obtain nutrients, research has shown us that it is also a major cause of lower gut dysbiosis.
  • Intestinal infection and infestation. This can be due to parasites, fungal, bacterial or viral infections. Candida is a common gut infection I see in my clinic. This can escape from the gut and become systemic, causing a wide array of symptoms. This organism is also responsible for vaginal thrush in women and can also infect men.
  • Too little or too much exercise. Exercise is important but it needs to be the right about for you as an individual.

 

Conditions Linked to Dysbiosis

  • Autoimmune diseases. Research is indicating that dysbiosis may play a role in the development of all autoimmune diseases. It is important to remember that autoimmune diseases are complex and there is never a single cause but for many people dysbiosis may be an important factor, not only in causing the disease but also in sustaining it.
  • Gut disorders. Dysbiosis is probably a major factor in many gastrointestinal disorders including:
    •  Irritable bowel syndrome
    • Inflammatory bowel diseases
    • Excessive flatulence
    • Certain types of food sensitivities
    • Chronic diarrhoea and constipation
    • Diverticular disease
    • Gastrointestinal infections and intestinal overgrowth eg Candida
    • SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth)
  • Other disorders include:
    •  Allergies
    • Poor immunity
    • Chronic skin disorders
    • Lack of well-being, low energy and poor digestion
    • Emotional and psychiatric problems eg anxiety, depression
    • Obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes

 

How to Improve Gut Microbiota

  • The number one way to ensure that you have healthy gut microbiota is to have a healthy diet  – high in fibre rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and low in refined, fatty, sugary foods.
  • Engage regularly in a healthy level of exercise.
  • Minimise toxins as much as possible in your food, water, home and work environments.
  • Try to avoid exposure to antibiotics in your food – eat free range chickens and eggs; organic or grass fed meat.
  • Avoid taking antibiotics unless absolutely necessary.
  • Have a positive attitude to life. When necessary use methods/practices to minimise your stress levels. Any healthy practice that works for you is good. Take appropriate herbal medicines to improve your body’s capacity to respond to stress.

 

Natural Medicines

There are many herbal and nutritional medicines that can help to improve the health of your entire digestive system. When treating dysbiosis in the colon it is important to consider the health of the whole digestive system. The specific medicines used will depend on the gut health and general health of the individual involved. For example, if the dysbiosis in the colon is caused by low hydrochloric acid production in the stomach, there is no point focusing all treatment on only the colon. This will create only temporary improvement in the microbiota population. We must, at the same time as treating the colon, use remedies that will improve hydrochloric acid production in the upper gut. This will give us a more holistic and longer lasting solution.

I hope this brief article gives you a better understanding and an appreciation of how important the health of our digest tract is to our overall health, and what you can do to improve the health of your gut microbiota.

This is basic naturopathic philosophy which is now, thanks to modern research, also part of main stream modern medicine.

 

 

 

 

 

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