Our bodies are in a state of constant contact with our external environment. Our skin, which happens to be our largest organ, provides a barrier to the outside world and regulates our exposure to things like moisture, temperature, and UV rays. It also protects us from germs, toxic substances, and ubiquitous objects that can pierce, puncture and penetrate. It keeps us safe and alive.
While our skin may be the largest organ that serves as a protector to the outside environment, it isn’t the only one. Each time you eat food or take a drink, you are taking something from the outside world and bringing it into your body. And food isn’t the only thing that makes its way in. There are the medications and supplements that we take along with all of the viruses, bacteria, and chemicals that we inadvertently consume. While we know the effect of environmental exposure to things on our skin whether through visible damage or uncomfortable sensations, what happens to our internal environment, namely our gastrointestinal tract when it is exposed to the outside?
Just as our skin acts as a protective barrier, so does our gastrointestinal tract. There are critical functions that occur in each step of the digestive process that allows for the foods that we eat to be processed into usable components. The GI tract is a selective membrane that should only let it what is good for us, but what happens when there is dysfunction in the way that this is occurring?
This month, we are going to focus on one aspect of our digestive health that influences the overall health of our GI tract – our gut bacteria. Also known as our gut microbiome, there are trillions of bacteria in our digestive tract. It’s fascinating to think that our bodies are actually comprised of a greater number of bacterial cells versus human cells. One ounce of human poop has more bacteria in it than there are stars in the known universe. That’s how many there are! What’s important to know is that the diversity and ratios of these bacteria are significant to the expression of our health.
Our bodies are constantly striving to maintain balance and the population of bacteria in our GI tract is no different. Ideally, around 85% of those bacteria should be beneficial strains that do things like protect our GI barrier, contribute to the production of vital enzymes, and aid in the breakdown of food as it’s passing through our intestinal tract. But sometimes, because of foods we eat or other catalysts such as stress, medications, infections, or other environmental input, we end up with less of what we need and more of what we don’t.
These changes to our microbiome can show up as a variety of different symptoms such as (adapted from bepure.co.nz):
DIGESTIVE ISSUES LIKE BLOATING, GAS OR DIARRHEA – These are the hallmark symptoms of gut dysfunction. The number and diversity of the bacteria living inside your gut, intestines, stomach, and colon contribute to your digestive processes. Gas, in particular, is a sign that food is fermenting in your gut as you have insufficient stomach acid or an imbalance of bacteria to break down the food you’ve eaten.
SUGAR CRAVINGS – Gut bacteria are capable of trying to get you to eat foods that they thrive on (sugar and carbs) by secreting special proteins that are similar to two hunger-regulating hormones, leptin and ghrelin. These proteins affect both our food cravings and mood. If you eat a lot of sugar you feed the unhelpful bacteria that love it and they secrete the proteins to make you crave sugar more. It’s a vicious cycle.
BAD BREATH – The bacteria you have in your gut influences what is happening in your mouth. Bad breath, also called halitosis, stems from odor-inducing microbes that reside in between your teeth and gums, and on your tongue. It can also be caused by bacteria linked to gum disease. A healthy digestive system is crucial for optimal overall health, including oral health.
FOOD ALLERGIES OR SENSITIVITIES – The gut barrier is your gatekeeper that decides what gets in and what stays out. When the intestinal barrier becomes permeable (leaky gut syndrome), large protein molecules from the foods that we eat escape into the bloodstream. Since these proteins don’t belong outside of the gut, the body mounts an immune response and attacks them. This immune response can show up as food intolerances or sensitivity.
MOODINESS, ANXIETY, AND DEPRESSION – When one thinks of mental health, we think of the brain and neurotransmitters – not the gut. But part of the reason micronutrient deficiencies affect mental health is because of compromised gut function. A compromised gut will affect your ability to use serotonin and dopamine (your happiness regulating hormones) and vitamin D within your body. The majority of serotonin and about half of your dopamine is made in your gut. If you have leaky gut, your body could lose much of the serotonin and dopamine it produces. The inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food but can also guide your emotions.
SKIN PROBLEMS LIKE ECZEMA AND DERMATITIS – A common sign of food intolerance is eczema and skin sensitivities. If your intestinal tract becomes permeable (again – leaky gut), your immune system may be over-responding to food proteins that have passed through the GI tract into the bloodstream. This can cause an upswing in activity in dermal irritations.
AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE AND SUPPRESSED IMMUNITY – The link between leaky gut and autoimmune conditions is huge. Many of our clients that have autoimmune concerns, such as thyroid disease, also have symptoms of a leaky gut. Removing food culprits and working on healing and restoring the gut is often one of the first steps taken in creating a treatment plan. Additionally, if someone suffers from frequent illness or infections, the reason could be a suppressed immune system that is impacted by poor gut health.
So, what can you do to learn more about the state of your gut? There are some pretty great tests out there that can tell you what type of bacteria you have you your gut through testing – you guessed it – your poop! A microbiology test can provide us with a breakdown of the different strains of bacteria that are found in your GI tract including population estimates of the “good guys” and an indicator of the presence of other strains of bacteria that aren’t as good.
Once you know more about the health of your gut, there are some things that you can do to improve upon it – if need be. We’re always fans of reducing carbohydrates and sugar, for numerous reasons, and gut health is one of them. Another, more intensive step, is to complete a gut restoration program like the one described in this Metagenic’s blog.
Probiotics, such as UltraFlora Balance, can also contribute to reestablishing a healthy balance of bacteria whether they are incorporated as a part of a restoration program, taken acutely, or recommended as part of a maintenance program. With probiotics, quality counts. From a Metagenics blog:
“Many probiotic formulas on the market are nonspecific about their applications. And that’s no surprise—considering many of these formulas contain organisms that are not strain-identified. This makes it even more difficult to choose the right formula. In fact, only a handful of probiotic strains have been researched extensively. Make sure you pay attention to the product label and look for a genus, species, and strain (e.g., Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM). This should appear as two long Latin words (genus first and species second) followed by a series of capitalized letters and/or numbers (the strain). Keep this tip in mind when you shop for a probiotic formula.”
In addition to probiotics, you want to consider your PREbiotics. The reality is that almost everything you consume is prebiotic. By clinical definition, a prebiotic is a substrate that is selectively utilized by a host microorganism conferring a health benefit. Thanks to research and clinical studies, we know that certain types of fats, fibers, starches, and phytochemicals that positively stimulate intestinal bacteria. This information has now been applied to advance the formulation of medical foods such as Ultra GI Replenish. This product is formulated with specialized ingredients that encourage repair of the mucosal lining of the GI tract and that that selectively nourish beneficial bacteria.
As we learn more about the digestive system, and more specifically about the types of bacteria that are present along with their unique roles, the inner workings of our health will continue to unfold. In the interim, if you’re curious about your digestive health, check in with us and let us know what’s happening. Through an appointment, we can make recommendations for testing, diet, and supplements that can help get your guts back on track.