The father of modern medicine Hippocrates stated “All disease begins in the gut” and today his words still hold true
Regardless of our health status, we actually have more bacteria in our bodies than we have human cells, and most of these reside in the gut, essentially determining our whole quality of life.
Among the bacteria there are beneficial and less beneficial strains, ideally working in harmony together to create our microbiome. However, through poor diet, stressful lifestyles, ultra clean environments, and medication, this gut flora can become imbalanced in many of us.
An imbalance in bacteria can cause digestive issues and symptoms of IBS. The growth of certain strains can lead to many different symptoms, from gas and constipation to diarrhoea, abdominal pain, food sensitivities and allergies. There is now evidence that these imbalances in bacteria can even lead to inflammation, which is thought to be at the heart of many diseases including depression, inflammatory bowel disease, heart disease and some autoimmune conditions too.
On the other side of the scale, beneficial bacteria are essential for digesting and extracting nutrients from our food, and if we don’t have a happy microbiome, we can become deficient in certain vitamins and minerals that help us feel healthy.
70% of our immune system also lives in our gut and it’s referred to as “gut associated lymphoid tissues” (GALTs). These tissues determine whether what we ingest is safe or harmful to the body, but when the gut is imbalanced, the immune system goes into overdrive and starts attacking our own cells in a clean-up process.
The gut-immune system link can also explain why people with frequent colds, and allergies nearly always have gut flora imbalances.
Why Do We Have Microbiome Imbalances?
There are many reasons why the gut flora can be altered and usually it’s a combination of the following factors:
- Poor diet
Our diets have become so refined and so sugar heavy that it causes the not so good bacteria to multiply, tipping the balance to far the wrong way.
Antibiotics work by killing off both pathogenic and beneficial strains of bacteria in the gut, so whilst they can deal with an infection, if you don’t repopulate with beneficial strains, there will continue to be an imbalance.
- Conventional dairy and meat
Sadly, in order to produce high quantities of animal foods, cattle are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics that we then ingest through our meat and dairy consumption. This can disturb our delicate gut flora and wreck havoc with our bodies. To avoid this, it’s vital to opt for grass fed, organic produce wherever possible.
- The Pill
No one ever really mentions this, but the contraceptive pill can massively impact and disturb the gut flora in women, leading to various digestive issues. Putting beneficial strains back into the diet is an absolute must either during or after being on the pill.
There's a direct link between the gut and the brain, with stress altering the gut flora. When we get stressed we also use up the mineral zinc, which helps to make hydrochloric acid. When we’re low in this acid, we’re then unable to digest our food properly and kill of pathogens, which can subsequently enter through the gut.
- A sterile environment
We need to be exposed to some bacteria to populate our microbiome, so rolling around in the dirt, especially for children is hugely beneficial. Not only that, but overusing antibacterial cleaning products, we’re disturbing the balance, which can lead to further issues.
In an ideal world we would be born naturally, absorbing our mothers’ flora from her vagina, which then populates our gut. We would also be later breast-fed, taking in more bacteria, which essentially builds our microbiome. Undergoing C-section or avoiding breastfeeding, our children are prevented from absorbing bacteria and can later have issues from acid reflux to a whole host of digestive complications and susceptibility to illness. Infant probiotics can be introduced during feeds to help build babies gut flora.
What Can We Do? The 4 R Approach
The good news is that there is so much we can do to restore balance in our gut and make it a happy place again! Whilst I recommend a stool test to see what’s really going on before treating anything, there are 4 things we can do to help with digestive issues:
Remove any possible food sensitivities (the most common ones being gluten, dairy and soy), pathogenic species in the gut, or parasites; this can be done by opting for a low sugar diet, and using certain herbs to kill of any unwanted visitors.
If you are low in hydrochloric acid, digestive enzymes, or certain nutrients like zinc that aid digestion, these need to be added back into the diet via supplementation.
Ultimately, even if you take out offending factors and put in some digestive enzymes, there still needs to be some repair work to bring down any associated inflammation and heal the lining of the gut. Foods like turmeric and omega 3 rich- foods are highly anti-inflammatory; collagen is rich in glutamine, which can help the healing; and plants like slippery elm and aloe vera can soothe any irritation.
In many gut programmes, this step is often missed out but can really be the determining factor in long- term healing. You can kill the bad guys, heal the lining, and get your enzymes working well, but if you don’t repopulate the gut with friendly bacteria then it’s likely that unpleasant situations will reoccur.
Probiotics are live strains of beneficial bacteria, which can be found in certain fermented foods (like sauerkraut, miso and kefir) and in supplement form. Adding these into your diet can work wonders and help restore our microbiome. We can then later introduce prebiotics, which are non-digestible fibres that feed the beneficial strains, and these are found in garlic, leeks, onions, artichoke and chicory.
The most important thing is to remember that there is always a reason for why we have certain experiences in our body and there are many things we can do to take charge of our health and nourish ourselves back to vitality. Always look for the root cause of any symptom and search out answers to treat imbalances. Digestive issues are not something you have to endure…